RY Timber1

An RY Timber trucker loads his semitrailer surrounded by processed lumber outside Livingston on Feb. 24.

A Montana timber company announced it would indefinitely close its Townsend sawmill, and as a result, boost its Livingston operation.

RY Timber Inc. said in a news release Monday that layoffs at the Townsend location will begin in April, and that the closure would affect about 70 employees. The closure is attributed to a lack of timber supply, although some dispute that claim.

Ed Regan with RY Timber Inc. said the Livingston sawmill would add approximately 35 to 40 jobs after the Townsend mill is closed. Some employees in Townsend may be transferred to Livingston to fill the added positions.

Regan said that both locations have been operating at 50% to 60% of full capacity, and that the Townsend closure will put Livingston at full production. Regan said that the Townsend mill will be up and running again when more wood becomes available for production.

“Townsend will be only be idle for a year or two,” Regan said.

RY Timber Inc. said in the release that the timber shortage is due to lawsuits that have kept federal projects from moving forward.

“For the past several years, the uncertainty and delays caused by litigation of Forest Service timber sales has required RY Timber’s mills to operate at one-half their capacity,” the release said.

Regan said litigation that has slowed or stopped some timber projects makes it tough for the timber industry to plan for the future, and that the uncertainty added to the decision to suspend Townsend’s operations. He said RY Timber Inc. gets about 70% of its timber from Forest Service projects.

Regan said he believes the timber industry may soon find reprieve in the courts.

“We’re optimistic that we’re getting some new (federal) judges from the Trump administration that will be favorable for forest management and timber harvest,” Regan said.

Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, disputes the claim that litigation is to blame for the Townsend closure. His organization and others have filed lawsuits against the U.S. Forest Service for approved timber projects that have convinced judges to stop or delay those projects over concerns like Endangered Species Act violations.

However, Garrity said RY Timber Inc.’s supply deficiency is not a result of those lawsuits, but due to the company being outbid on a timber sales and that timber supply is greater than demand right now.

“RY is not being truthful saying there’s a lack of supply. There’s actually an oversupply,” Garrity said.

Garrity said the Townsend closure is an example of how capitalism works, that sometimes companies lose to competition and pay for that loss. He also pointed to the fact that the U.S. Forest Service offered more timber last year than what was bid on.

The Forest Service had more than 300 million board feet of timber that wasn’t sold to timber companies last year, according to Dan Hottle, a Forest Service spokesperson. He wrote in an email that the Forest Service’s Northern Region said it was “saddened” to hear the Townsend mill would close.

“We will continue to work with our timber industry partners as we increase the pace and scale of our active management to reduce the risk of wildfire and improve the health of Montana’s forests,” Hottle wrote.

Julia Altemus, executive director of the Montana Wood Products Association, said that some timber sales aren’t bid on when road packages are too expensive or when companies believe a lawsuit is inevitable for a particular project.

Altemus said the Townsend closure is “heartbreaking.” She said the timber industry needs better ways to address lawsuits and that she’d like to see the Forest Service project review process reformed.

“There’s a litany of provisions out there that would be helpful,” Altemus said.

One of those, Altemus said, would be a bill being crafted by Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines and California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The legislation that’s still in draft form would aim to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and would include language meant to protect the Forest Service from lawsuits that slow or stop logging projects.

Daines spokesperson Katie Schoettler said in an email the senator is in the final stages of drafting the bill.

In regards to the Townsend mill closure, Daines said in a statement the news is devastating.

“This is the result of fringe extremists using obstructionist litigation to destroy Montana timber jobs. My heart goes out to Ed and all of the families impacted by this sad news,” Daines said.

Montana U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte expressed similar sentiments.

“The mill shut down, because they can’t get access to logs. They can’t get access to logs, because environmental extremists tie up timber projects in court. The constant anti-timber litigation has real consequences for hardworking Montana loggers and their families,” Gianforte said.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester did not comment on the circumstances under which the mill is closing, but did provide a statement on the closure through spokesperson Sarah Feldman.

“Sen. Tester is a strong supporter of Montana’s wood products industry and is focused on ensuring that the Montanans whose jobs will be affected by the closure are quickly able to transition to other employment,” Feldman said.

This story has been updated to correctly attribute a quote to Mike Garrity, who said the Townsend closure is an example of how capitalism works

Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.

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