As snow fell gently in the Boulder mountains south of Helena Thursday morning, the employees of Marks Lumber were hard at work getting timber cut to size.
The 21 employee sawmill takes forest harvested timber and turns it into siding, floors, beams and more.
Owner Steve Marks has been working in the timber industry since he was in high school. He’s currently making a push for responsible timber operations as a way to better manage state and federal forests.
“Without the forest industry in Montana our forests would be in far, far worse shape,” said Marks. “Now that’s my opinion, there’s others that will differ with it. They think we should leave the forests alone. We leave our forests alone and fire comes, you get the worst of the two options.”
Marks Lumber had a front row seat to wildfire in June.
The Lump Gulch Fire started a mile or so down their road and burned more than a thousand acres from Clancy towards Helena.
Much of the area is filled with beetle kill trees. The number of standing dead trees caused issues for firefighters that had a difficult time accessing the fire.
“The forest is like a yard or a garden, it has to be taken care of,” said Marks. “We can either manage it and know what, or predict what the outcome can be or we let mother nature take its course and we know what that is.”
For decades, Montana’s largest manufacturing sector was wood and paper products.
Since 2000 the industry has significantly reduced, with some large lumber operations like RY timber in Townsend closing up shop in recent years. RY Timber cited timber sale litigations as one of their biggest hurdles in trying to operate.
Marks believes something desperately needs to be done, and worries that the state could be in a bad situation unless something changes.
“The truth of the matter is that if we lose the infrastructure, the milling infrastructure, we’ve lost the tools to keep our forests healthy,” said Marks.
Timber can be a renewable resource if done correctly, but it takes time. Depending on the species of tree, it can take anywhere from 50 to 70 years before an area is completely regrown and ready to be logged once again.