Grunke column: Wood products are still a ‘best fit’ for Missoula

In recent years, a perception has spread throughout Western Montana that the wood products industry, long a pillar of our region’s economy, is in permanent decline. No doubt, there have been reasons for pessimism. One needn’t drive far in any direction to find a shuttered mill. Walk into any adult education class and you’ll probably find a former logger or millworker who is now trying to forge a different career path.

Total sales value of wood products in the state is less than a quarter what it was at the industry’s peak in the early 1990s, according to the Montana Bureau of Business & Economic Research.

So it surprises some people to learn that wood products and renewables count among the industry sectors that we at Missoula Economic Partnership have identified as “best fit” for Missoula County’s economic growth and future stability. (The other sectors are Life Sciences, Information Technology, Manufacturing, and Back Office & Creative Professional Services.)

It isn’t that we expect the drivers of decline — including international market competition, reduced harvests from federal timberlands and other factors — to suddenly shift into reverse. Many of the old models of harvest and processing are gone for good.

But the simple, fortunate fact is that our forests remain a vast, renewable resource that will continue to drive a significant portion of our area’s economy.

Even today, international market conditions are changing. Where competition from Canadian wood was once a primary culprit (at least in public perception) in the decline of Montana’s industry, now Asian demand for lumber is beginning to buoy Montana’s industry.

In mid-March 2013, Missoula hosted an unprecedented reverse-trade mission of representatives from 16 Asian companies seeking new sources of wood products. Organized jointly by the Montana World Trade Center, the Forest Business Network and Missoula Economic Partnership, the three-day visit connected those visitors with several of our region’s major wood products suppliers.

The impending reopening of Plum Creek’s stud mill in Evergreen and the success of the chipping operation at the Bonner mill site similarly reflect growing demand and rising prices for traditional wood products, which bodes well for our entire region.

We also see great potential for Missoula County in emerging forest products industries. Already, local companies such as Rivertop Renewables and Blue Marble Biomaterials have built strong, growing businesses around the transformation of plant sugars and other renewable resources into high-value chemicals and bioproducts.

And over the past seven months, more than 70 scientists from university, government and industry laboratories around the country have converged in Missoula for a first-of-its-kind analysis of our region’s business case to become a major hub for a new wood-to-jet-fuel industry.

Funded by the largest-ever grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and overseen by the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, this project aims to produce a road map toward a new industry — one that could not only reinvigorate our wood products industry, but also reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

As the saying goes, we mustn’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. Through innovative new business models and thoughtful stewardship, the local wood products industry can once again be a powerful economic driver.

James Grunke is CEO of Missoula Economic Partnership. This column originally appeared in the March 24 edition of the Missoulian’s Western Montana InBusiness.

Read a full report on Missoula’s forest products & renewables sector at this link.

Missoula Economic Partnership | 500 N. Higgins Ave. | Suite 300 | Missoula, Montana 59802 | P: 406.541.6461 | F: 406.541.6464