Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Pyramid closure didn’t have to happen

by Scott Snelson
| April 3, 2024 2:00 AM

The lack of vision from the U.S. Forest Service Regional Supervisor, as well as her staff, helped sink Pyramid Lumber, with it taking the livelihoods of over 100 Montanans along with rich opportunities to help the climate and reduce fire fuel hazard risk. Solid and innovative solutions to significantly help the housing issues in Seeley Lake and other communities have been presented to Regional Leaders for years without any meaningful action. 

A group of U.S. Forest Service District Rangers from the Northern Region began meeting in 2021 to work on solutions to the housing crisis faced by existing and future USFS employees. It was painfully apparent to the rangers that our ability to attract and retain high quality employees and get the public’s work done was unreachable unless we found solutions to the high cost of housing. 

At the same time, it was clear to the rangers that unless there was an expanded market for small diameter wood, our ability to treat meaningful acres of overstocked stands to reduce wildfire risk was also unreachable. 

The nexus of these challenges also provided incredible opportunity for the communities in the Seeley/Swan Valley and the Flathead. An emerging small diameter cross-laminated timber (SDCLT) industry that utilizes the very type of wood we need to remove from our stands for fire hazard reduction, could have been further catalyzed by the purchase of “temporary” panelized houses. These units could be rapidly deployed on USFS administrative sites to give Forest employees and others an opportunity to transition into tight local housing markets. Should the housing crisis wane, the SDCLT units are designed to be easily dismantled and easily moved to other locations. This type of construction is wood (carbon) intensive and stores the carbon for the life of the panels (designed to last decades longer than traditional frame construction). 

The District Ranger at Seeley Lake had identified approximately 20 acres of USFS lands that could have been rapidly developed for USFS and other community housing to meet the housing crisis. These concepts were presented to the Regional Forester and her team years ago and were met with the standard chorus of excuses why the status quo needed to be maintained. 

Providing employee housing at administrative sites is far from novel. Until the 1980s, it was common for the USFS. 

In my nine years as a USFS line officer in Region 1, I haven’t seen any indication there is meaningful leadership capacity in the USFS Regional Office to face the multiple crises we are encountering; climate, fire hazard, housing, and employee recruitment and retention. The guardians of the status quo have circled the wagons and armed themselves mightily against change and innovation. 

Now we have one fewer partner, (and Pyramid Lumber was a good one), to help us address these issues. A good share of the blame falls squarely on the USFS Regional Forester. 

Scott Snelson 

Rexford, Montana