MILES CITY, Mont. — The demand for lumber has driven prices so high that even remote forests, including some virgin pine stands that have grown in southeastern Montana for more than two centuries, now echo with the growl of chain saws.
"Demand for timber in the United States is as high as it has ever been," said Frank Gladics of Rapid City, S.D, who heads the Intermountain Forest Industry Assn.
"It takes a perfect set of circumstances for mills to go so far to get timber in southeastern Montana," he said, "and now we have them."
The loggers' arrival hereabouts raises questions. Will the cutting harm or help wildlife? Is erosion and the muddying of streams inevitable? Why shouldn't ranchers take advantage now that they can finally sell their timber profitably? What should the state do?
The eroded sandstone bluffs, coulees, prairies and small, heavily forested mountains of southeastern Montana provide one-third of the state's deer kill, 45% of the antelope and 80% of the turkeys.
Hauls Logs 170 Miles
James Rarick, manager of Pope & Talbot's giant 100-million-board-foot mill in Spearfish, S.D., said: "We're already hauling logs 170 miles from southeastern Montana. Other mills in South Dakota and northern Wyoming are doing the same.
"I'm not exaggerating when I say that practically every mill in the region is looking at southeastern Montana for additional sawlogs," Rarick said.
Mark Ahner, the Department of State Lands' regional supervisor in Miles City, said, "On a quiet day you can hear the buzz of chain saws anywhere in Powder River County.
"I've been here six years, and I never had an inquiry about a timber sale on state land until June," Ahner said. "Eight companies have now inquired about cutting on 16 state-owned sections."
"The situation with logging down here is a sleeper," added Ken Walcheck, regional information officer for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "The public doesn't know what's happening."
Sees Major Change
And Steve Knapp, the department's game biologist in Broadus, said the new logging constitutes a major change in land use.
"Some of the big ponderosa pines that are being cut are very old trees that have survived more than 200 years. They were growing before we were a nation," Knapp said.
"Our concerns for wildlife include slash piles, which increase fire hazards," he said, referring to the piles of limbs discarded as an area is logged.
"Extensive road construction means more erosion and recreational access to wildlife. There is a potential for the spread of noxious weeds, and wildlife habitat can be destroyed."
Walcheck, Knapp and Ahner agreed that carefully planned timber sales can actually enhance wildlife habitat. "Logging and wildlife are not necessarily incompatible," Knapp said.
Walcheck cautioned: "I'm worried about the loggers who won't be careful, the small loggers with portable sawmills, who go in, cut and get out."
'Trade-Offs for Wildlife'
Ahner said: "There are trade-offs for wildlife when you have logging. Slash piles may provide nesting sites for turkeys, but if you log the roost trees off the ridges this will hurt turkeys." Logging can harm such species as golden eagles and white-tailed deer, Ahner said.
Pope & Talbot's Rarick said his company is committed to careful, selective logging and will design long-range timber management plans for private landowners. "We don't want to just go out and cut down every tree," he said.
However, Don Knapp, who operates a small sawmill in Ekalaka, is worried that big mills "will harvest the timber too fast and log out the country around here in five years."
Knapp said his mill, which provides lumber for area farmers and ranchers, was forced by out-of-state competition recently to pay $48,500 for Custer National Forest timber appraised at $8,054.
Wildlife officials, meanwhile, are worried about the cumulative effects of widespread logging in the region, including what happens on the 444,000-acre Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
Reservation superintendent John Pereau said a 10-year contract has been signed with the privately owned Northern Cheyenne Timber Co. at Ashland to cut 10 million board feet of timber a year on the reservation. He said cutting may increase to 12 million board feet annually, twice the cut in recent years.
The Ashland and Sioux divisions of the Custer National Forest are being eyed as a prime source of sawlogs, but officials said they wouldn't approve sales that harmed wildlife.
"Any timber around Ekalaka or Ashland is in high demand," said Jim Shell, a Custer Forest timber manager. If there's extensive cutting on private land adjacent to the Custer Forest, "we may have to mitigate the effects on wildlife by not offering some of our timber for sale."
Timber Sales Triple
In the Ashland and Sioux divisions, timber sales have tripled from 1 million board feet just four years ago, Shell said, adding: