Clean | Green | Sustainable

Meet the New Montana Woodproducts Association

Posted by Matthew Koehler on March 18, 2009

By all accounts, once all is said and done, the current 2009 Montana Legislative Session will go down as one of the worst sessions for the environment in recent Montana history. Of course, this is somewhat ironic given that environmental consciousness has increased significantly in both our state and country over the past decade.

Some might say, “But wait. Didn’t I see recently in Grist that your Governor Brian Schweitzer was one of the greenest govs in the entire land?” Well, check out the comments section at that post and then get back with me.

Fact is, those of us in Montana who are familiar with the rhetoric and policies coming out of the Schweitzer Administration, like the dedicated folks at Helena’s Montana Environmental Information Center, see right through the governor’s BS.  Make no mistake, unless Gov Schweitzer is warming up his veto pen, he’ll sign into law legislation that would make even Marc Racicot and Judy Martz proud.

Now I admit to historically not paying much attention to what’s happening in Helena during our biannual legislative sessions. Over the years, my environmental work has revolved more around federal policies coming out of Washington DC.  This year, out of necessity, has been a little different, although I still wish I could spend more time in Helena.

Last October, as it became quite clear that the timber industry and their supporters in the state house were greasing the wheels for a host of bills to “bail out” the timber industry, I pen an oped for the Missoulian titled Recent turmoil shows a new economic model needed.  If I do say so myself, it pretty much hits the nail on the head and I’d encourage folks to go back and give it a read, especially in light of dramatic changes our economy and world have gone through over the past six months.

I opened the piece with:

“Over the years, there have been plenty of proverbial canaries in the coal mine who repeatedly warned about a looming economic crisis, a virtual perfect storm that would be equal parts over-consumption, unsustainable development, deregulation, “free trade” and irresponsibility on the part of corporations and consumers. If the sobering economic headlines of the past few weeks teach us one thing it should be that much of our current economic system is significantly flawed and that a new economic model – based on the principles of sustainability and local and regional self-sufficiency – is desperately needed.”

I then provided numerous examples documenting how the timber industry finds itself smack in the middle of the worst housing slump since the Great Depression and the steepest decline in lumber consumption ever.  I quoted timber mill managers that bluntly stated “Market prices are depressed and don’t currently cover the costs of production” and “No one’s buying what [we have] to sell. We’re getting to the point where we’re not getting any offers [for our products].”

But then I got to the meat of the issue, that there was “an aggressive effort behind the scenes to ‘bail out’ the timber industry with an ill-conceived initiative divorced from economic reality and any concept of sustainability.”  Let’s see. There were calls for tripling logging on national forests. Doubling logging on state lands. A bizarre plan for the state to seize control of a million acres of national forests. Then there were the bills to exempt the timber industry from paying fuel taxes, discounts for vehicle registration and even a bill to give the entire timber industry a two-year tax holiday.

As I pointed out back in October, “If we are going to ‘bail out’ the timber industry, shouldn’t Montanans at least demand that any taxpayer dollars go towards efforts that truly put the industry on a path towards economic and ecological sustainability?”  Is this really too much to ask for? I mean, at this point in human history would anyone who considers themselves an environmentalists actually stand up and fight for more of the same? For dumping more taxpayer dollars into an over-consumption/over-development paradigm? As they say in my native Wisconsin, “Oh, You Betcha!”

Enter MWA, the new Montana Woodproducts Association.  Some people still think MWA stands for Montana Wilderness Association, but if anyone’s been closely following the wilderness controversy in Montana (here, here and here) they’d see why the new name fits their acronym quite well.

You see, despite having an office a few blocks from Montana’s capital, by most accounts MWA has been completely AWOL on any bills in Helena having to do with the timber industry. Yep, ole MWA has largely hitched their Wilderness Wagon to the ole Timber Train and look what a mess they’ve created for themselves.

Oh, no, MWA can’t speak out against the timber industry or misguided public policy! MWA can’t even be honest with the public and tell them that there is simply no demand for wood products and that the existing timber mill infrastructure in Montana is largely a hold-over from the completely unsustainable logging and roadbuilding paradigm of recent past. Nope.

If the logging lobbyists storm the capital demanding that they be allowed to openly violate the US Constitution and just declare national forest lands “decayed” so counties can march onto federal land and just start logging, MWA can’t speak out against that. Nope, don’t want to offend their behind the scences collaboration with the timber industry.  Good thing I happened to show up as the only person to speak out against the bill and managed to kill it in the house committee (even though it passed the Senate 42-7).

Well, perhaps I should be more fair. It’s not really like MWA has been completely AWOL this legislative session. You see, if the timber industry needs a $10 million loan from Montana taxpayers to cover payroll and buy more logs (even though there’s virtual no demand for lumber and they can’t even sell timber), well, You Betchta!  MWA will make the trip up to the capital, as their executive director did last week, to support a taxpayer loan to “save the timber industry infrastructure.” Yep, what the world really needs now is more taxpayer funded over-consumption and over-development!

As I pointed out in a previous post last week, truth be told, the Montana timber industry actually requested a minimum taxpayer financed loan of $65 million. Think about it folks, if the Montana timber industry needs, at a minimum, a $65 million loan from taxpayers to cover payroll and buy logs it can’t sell maybe the industry wasn’t very sustainable to begin with.  Or maybe their business plans were flawed.

And it’s not like I don’t support using some stimulus money to help the timber industry right itself. As I said in October and pasted above, I just believe that any taxpayer funds need to be put towards efforts that truly put the industry on a more sustainable path. We cannot just hand over taxpayer dollars so the timber industry can pump out more lumber to build 5000 square foot homes in sprawling subdivisions and call it good. Those days have passed and our economy is in tatters as a result.

As I highlighted in a previous post, too bad a guy like Greg, with a good idea and a passion for bona-fide Sustainable Forestry, couldn’t get $21,000 for his portable sawmill and get a small crew together.  I’d rather see 475 outfits like Greg out there than see $10 million dumped into a black hole.

The future must be clean, green and sustainable. There is no other option. The sooner the public, elected officials and environmental organizations such as the Montana Wilderness Association, come to terms with this fact the better off we will all be in the future.

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6 Responses to “Meet the New Montana Woodproducts Association”

  1. George said

    Matt:

    Good job of pushing the idea that we need to rethink not only the forestry industry approach to wood production, but put it into the larger perspective of changing the way society does things. The changing economic situation is a perfect opportunity to rethink the entire paradigm of consumption that has “powered” the economy in the past. Sustainability will require meaningful changes in the way we live, and the current economic slow down in the timber industry presents a perfect opportunity to begin such a discussion. Thanks for your persistence.

  2. Ranger said

    I’m a former MWA member. Sad but true. The final straw was their closed door deal on the Beaverhead forest with the timber mills. After that I canceled my membership and vowed to never support them again. Many of my friends did the same thing. I cringe every time I hear them talk. They sound just like the timber industry.

  3. Paul said

    Dead on, Matthew. It is beyond comprehension that an organization that purports to have as its central purpose the augmentation of legislated wilderness in Montana should be pimping for outright welfare support for the very industry that has dogmatically opposed and fiercely campaigned against allowing even one more acre of precious and increasingly threatened wildland to be protected by law. As a timbering and roading advocacy group MWA has but limited effect, that’s true; as an advocacy group for wilderness, though, it has none.

  4. ecomom said

    Yesterday I went on a hike with a former MWA board member. They’re asking the same questions you are – what happened to MWA? Longtime MWA supporters are shaking their heads. Another former board member told me he basically thought MWA had to put together their Beaverhead/Deer Lodge strategy because they believed Burns was in the Senate for good…but then Burns went away and, unfortunately, the old Republican appeasement strategy of MWA did not.

  5. […] Meet the New Montana Woodproducts Association […]

  6. Larry said

    As an MWA council member in 1986 I saw the beginings of MWA’s present trajectory. At that time the council approved two motions advocating that Montana’s few remaining roadless areas should stay the way they are (were). These motions were subverted by a staff person.
    Now the MWA has a closed council, open only to invited applicants. Control issues??
    MWA does precious little work to protect the status quo of Montana’s roadless lands. This vanishingly small effort is dwarfed by MWA’s giveaway of roadless lands to development in areas like the Beaverhead, Big Snowies, etc, etc.
    The giveaways have bought nothing but the ego satisfaction of being called on by politicians, corporate executives and media to purportedly represent the conservation community on wildland issues and now even logging and motorized recreation issues.
    MWA’s misguided policies have resulted in much on the ground damage, with much more to come. They have spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars undermining local conservation groups’ efforts. They have also joined the wood products industry in their anti-environmentalist rhetoric, attempting to isolate the very groups that have been doing the thankless work of protecting our roadless areas so they might continue to qualify for Wilderness designation.
    I normally do not advocate turning on “allies”, but when I see the supposed ally undermining the genuine conservation work of others I think it is time to call it out in public.

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