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Timber mill workers in Montana have a tough time finding affordable housing

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Montana once had a thriving timber industry, but now just a handful of sawmills are in operation. And one of the longest running, at 75 years, is shutting down. It's not for a lack of logs. Montana has just become so desirable that many timber mill workers can't afford to live there anymore. Montana Public Radio's Austin Amestoy reports.

AUSTIN AMESTOY, BYLINE: Fifty years ago, lots of Montana towns had businesses like Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake. Wood products provided more jobs than any other industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY WHIRRING)

TODD JOHNSON: This is just the finish, yeah. And this is what's coming out the end of the whole process.

AMESTOY: Todd Johnson surveys a stream of two-by-fours rattling by on a conveyor belt. He's Pyramid's 58-year-old plant manager. His grandfather founded the mill in the late '40s, and it's the only work Johnson has ever known. This fall, he and the plant's 100 employees will be out of a job. But Johnson says it's not for a lack of logs to mill.

JOHNSON: You know, our housing costs have increased so much after COVID that the blue-collar workforce is having a hard time living in rural communities.

AMESTOY: In Missoula County, where the mill is located, the median home price shot up 55% since the start of the pandemic to more than half a million dollars. In Seeley Lake, the typical home is listed for even more. Johnson says Pyramid spent the last decade short on labor thanks to the housing crunch. Then inflation spiked, and lumber prices fell sharply from pandemic highs. Now Johnson is grappling with what comes next.

JOHNSON: I don't know. I'll have to find something. We'll cross that bridge when it comes.

AMESTOY: Montana lost a lot of timber harvesting and milling jobs in the wake of the so-called timber wars of the 1990s. Then the U.S. Forest Service drastically reduced logging on its holdings in Western states in response to environmental impacts. Pyramid was one of a handful of sawmills that managed to survive, but now it has to close.

BRYCE WARD: The economics of it have changed.

AMESTOY: Economist Bryce Ward says the same mountains and lakes that made Montana prime timber country are now attracting people for different reasons.

WARD: Not just tourism-based, you know, a tech company that can really locate anywhere. My workers really like those mountains and trees, so we'll locate there. And that's what drives, then, the housing price growth.

AMESTOY: At least four Montana sawmills shuttered in the last decade and laid off more than 300 people, according to state data. Ward says Seeley Lake likely has two possible futures.

WARD: It will either be smaller, or it will be Big Sky.

AMESTOY: Big Sky, Mont. - a ski resort town where the median household income is nearly a hundred thousand dollars and the luxury real estate market is booming. Seeley Lake doesn't have a ski hill. But Tom Browder, 76-year-old leader of the Seeley Lake Community Council, welcomes high-speed internet as an alternative to the timber town's timberless future. He thinks it could help people losing jobs at the mill.

TOM BROWDER: Teach people what the cloud is, you know, about operating systems, this or that. That would be a pretty easy start to get people ready for this next phase.

AMESTOY: Browder says the town will likely have to rely on a new generation of remote workers, as well as its growing population of retirees and summer tourists, to withstand the closure of the mill. Local business and government leaders say they're talking about ways to potentially keep the mill running, too. But without a major investment, that will be an uphill battle. Todd Johnson, the timber mill manager who's worked there since he was 12, says he'll miss it and his coworkers. There are many unknowns ahead, but he's certain about one thing.

JOHNSON: I'm not leaving, though. I'm born-and-raised Seeley Lake. I'm not going anywhere.

AMESTOY: What will fade away is a backdrop of familiar sounds like this one - a truck turning onto the highway out of town after delivering one of the mill's final loads of timber.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE WHIRRING)

AMESTOY: For NPR News, I'm Austin Amestoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Austin Amestoy