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Emmer Brothers Cedar, a lumber yard in Belgrade, is facing its busiest year for the second year in a row. The only problem is that the supplier, which specializes in cedar, can’t get any lumber.

“Products just aren’t available and once we sell out there’s nothing to replace,” Manager Kari Doll said. “Or, the price has skyrocketed since the last time we bought it.”

Following a national trend, Bozeman suppliers, contractors and do-it-yourselfers are facing a shortage of lumber as prices spike.

“It was the perfect storm,” Doll said. “Everybody quarantined said ‘let’s all move to Bozeman.’ Construction has been crazy and the price of materials have skyrocketed.”

Early in the pandemic, timber production faced slowdowns, curtailments and labor and supply chain disruptions. As supply shrunk, demand grew among a surge in new developments and home renovations.

That, coupled with Canada limiting the number of lumber shipments to the U.S., have hamstrung everyone from mills to mom and pop remodeling their cabinets.

“These are the highest lumber prices in the history of keeping lumber prices,” said Todd Morgan, the director of forest industry and manufacturing research at the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

In Montana, the lumber composite price index increased nearly 150% from the beginning of 2020 to a record high in September, according to a report Morgan co-authored published in the Montana Business Quarterly.

Nationally, prices per thousand-board-feet of lumber increased nearly 250% from April 2020 to April 2021, according to an analysis by the National Association of Home Builders. In May, the price for a thousand board feet of lumber hit an all-time high of $1,615.

Lumber Demand

Neat rows of lumber wait for customers at the lumber yard at Kenyon Noble in Belgrade on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

Developers searching for building materials are facing higher rates. In Bozeman, that’s contributing to the already bloated cost of housing.

Phil Rotherham, who owns Rotherham Construction, said the company has been able to get enough lumber for its projects but that steep prices are driving up construction costs.

His company is developing several affordable housing projects in Bozeman. Higher construction costs are usually borne by the building owners, ramping up the final price tag.

“It’s making affordable housing more expensive,” Rotherham said.

The spike in lumber prices added nearly $36,000 to the average price of a new single-family home, the National Association of Home Builders analysis found.

R-Y Timber, a sawmill Livingston, has been running at full production — seeing firsthand the high pressure for lumber.

“The demand has been great,” said Ed Regan of R-Y Timber. “You sell out everyday.”

Belgrade-based Montana Timber, which sells reclaimed lumber, hasn’t seen a huge demand, Operations Manager Pat Iwanski said.

The shortage is mainly affecting new lumber, he said. Still, the lumberyard has seen a recent increase in demand for its product.

“There are definitely more people interested in using reclaimed products, especially with the amount of new construction in Bozeman,” Iwanski said.

Even with prices climbing, lumber production in Montana was down 10.8% in 2020 compared to 2019, the University of Montana report showed.

Lumber Demand

Joe DeHaan checks a load before it leaves the lumber yard at Kenyon Noble in Belgrade on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

Lumber production slowed, in part, because of a shortage of logs in Montana and the intermountain region, Regan said.

R-Y Timber’s second mill, in Townsend, closed indefinitely in early 2020 because of a shortage of logs, he said. It has not reopened.

Much of the log shortage is due to a decrease in imports from Canada, coupled with less production in Oregon and California due the large fires in the past few years, Morgan said.

Transportation of lumber has also been bottlenecked and many mills have faced labor shortages due to the pandemic, contributing to a decline in production, he said.

Montana produces relatively low amounts of timber compared to states like Oregon and is mainly reliant on logs coming from the Pacific Northwest, Morgan said.

About 60% of timberland in Montana is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, 5% by other government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the rest is owned by private or tribal landowners.

Whether private landowners choose to ramp up logging will be something to watch if lumber prices remain high through the summer, he said.

As far as whether prices will even out — that’s anyone’s guess. The conditions that created the high demand in the first place likely aren’t going away, Morgan said.

At Emmer Brothers, estimating when prices will drop has become a running joke, Doll said.

“Let me grab my magic eight ball. It said ‘ask again later,’” she said. “Nobody knows, it’s totally unpredictable.”

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Juliana Sukut can be reached at 582-2630 or jsukut@dailychronicle.com

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