“I certainly agree with what Gordy has said, but at age 79 I look at the world a little differently than I did 25 years ago. Lumbermen are eternal optimists. No matter how bad things get, we get up every morning, put our pants on one leg at a time and go to work in the belief that we can make things better than they were yesterday. You can’t quit for a moment or you will fall behind, and if you fall behind, you will never catch up. You work hard, employ good, hardworking people, produce good products and try to help lift up others in your community. That’s what it’s all about.”

Roger Johnson, Owner
Pyramid Lumber Company
Seeley Lake, Montana

Roger Johnson owns the Pyramid Lumber Company at Seeley Lake, Montana. Gordon Sanders is his resource manager. The two men are pioneers in both stewardship contracting and forest collaboration in Montana. Mr. Johnson, 79, has been in the lumber business in Seeley Lake for 57 years. His father, Fred, and his partner, Oscar Mood, bought the struggling mill from its founders in 1949. Son, Roger, was 12. At the time, there were three telephones in Seeley Lake, including one in the J&M Lumber Company office. After Mr. Mood’s death, the company was renamed Pyramid Lumber, after a mountain in the Mission Range that is one of the gateways to the nearby Bob Marshall Wilderness.

With Mr. Johnson’s blessing and financial support, Mr. Sanders guided the company through the widely publicized Clearwater Stewardship Project, a joint venture between Pyramid and the U.S. Forest Service. Seeley Lake District Ranger, Tim Love, and Mr. Sanders spent thousands of hours seeing the project through from start to finish. Mr. Sanders subsequently immersed Pyramid Lumber in the forest collaborative process, which he believes is the future for Montana’s family-owned sawmills.

In this interview, the two men answer questions about Pyramid’s collaborative outreach.

Evergreen: You gentlemen have made quite a name for Pyramid Lumber Company in the forest collaboration and stewardship contracting worlds. How’d this all get started?

Johnson: Many of the same people who helped us get started with the Clearwater Stewardship Project also had a great interest in forest collaboration. So one just naturally led to the other.

Sanders: Pyramid doesn’t own any timberland, so we are totally dependent on the Forest Service, State and private landowners for the logs we need to run our mill. We need to buy about 35 million board feet, log scale, per year.

Evergreen: There isn’t much private timberland in Montana, and its mainly east of you isn’t it?

Sanders: Yes, central and eastern Montana, and owned by a pretty interesting cast of characters composed of doctors, lawyers, cowboys and Hollywood actors.

Evergreen: Not the sort of folks you would think would have much interest in logging.

Sanders: You’d be pleasantly surprised. People who buy land soon realize that if they don’t care for it, bad things begin to happen. Trees die. Insects and diseases spread. Pyramid calls itself “the stewardship company” because we see ourselves as good stewards capable of helping landowners successfully manage their timberland.

Johnson: It all sort of evolved out of our interest in getting along with people who share our interest in good forest management. We work hard to build personal relationships with others.

Evergreen: How do you get along with the Forest Service?

Johnson: Pretty well, I think. We learned a great deal about how the Forest Service works from Tim Love when he was our District Ranger here in Seeley Lake. Tim and Gordy worked very hard on the Clearwater Stewardship Project. Both of them have pretty disarming personalities, which helped us a lot in dealing with the skeptics who figured Pyramid was just in it for the timber.

Sanders: We’ve been pretty successful at bringing folks to the middle. When Clearwater was still in the planning phase, there was a lot of negative chatter about “Trees for toilets.” Stewardship contracts call for exchanging goods for services, and in our case, we were trading trees – the goods we harvested – for toilets we installed in Forest Service campgrounds that constituted part of the service end of the contract.

Evergreen: So the Forest Service wanted to thin trees of not much value from nearby overstocked stands, and it was willing to trade the trees for toilets that it wanted but could not afford to buy and install in campgrounds to improve water quality. Do we have that about right?

Johnson: That’s about right.  We also installed bridges to improve fish passage, obliterated legacy roads and reduced overall road density in the Grizzly Bear Management Unit.

Evergreen: Rumor has it that you lost a lot of money on the deal.

Johnson: About $200,000, but we gained a lot more on the publicity end, and the project opened a lot of doors for us that have been very helpful. As I said a moment ago, Clearwater led us to collaboration.

Sanders: A good example of us bringing folks to the middle would be the Wilderness Society’s strong support for forest collaboration. They were the ones who coined the “trees for toilets” sound bite when Clearwater was in the planning phase. Now we’re pretty much all singing from the same sheet music.

Evergreen: But with so much distrust for both the timber industry and the Forest Service, some third party must have helped you break the ice.

Sanders: You are correct. That someone was the late Art Ortenberg, who was the husband and business partner of the late Liz Claiborne. The Ortenberg’s had a ranch near here, and were very influential in the conservation world. Art got interested in what we were doing and brought a lot of big hitters out here to see what we were doing.

Evergreen: Didn’t Pyramid do some thinning work for them on their ranch?

Sanders: We did, and after Art saw the finished product, he became pretty vocal about our stewardship. It helped win him over, and he helped us in return.

Evergreen: And don’t I also recall that some of your peers in the lumber industry thought you’d gone over to the dark side?

Johnson: There was a lot of skepticism. I came in for some good natured ribbing from my friends, and for some behind the back criticism from others who thought we were crazy.

Evergreen: But you weren’t. And now forest collaboration is making great strides in Montana, and your work seems to have diffused most of your critics. To what do you attribute your success?

Johnson: Governor Bullock’s Forests in Focus initiative has really put collaboration and forest restoration on the front burner. But I also have to credit Mr. Ortenberg and Tim Love and Gordy for all of their hard work. Things like this don’t just happen. The Forest Service trusted Tim, Mr. Ortenberg came to trust us and I trusted Gordy.

Evergreen: Trust seems to be the defining ingredient in all of the collaboratives we’ve interviewed over the last eight months. It is easily the most remarkable turn of events that we’ve encountered in the 30 years that we’ve been writing about forests and forestry in the west.

Sanders: There has definitely been a shift. We still have our hiccups now and then that slow forward momentum, but we are moving in the right direction in terms of getting forest restoration work done on the ground.

Evergreen: We think the shift has come partly out of the realization that if Montana loses its wood processing infrastructure and its markets for wood products, there is no way for forest restoration to proceed. Would you agree?

Johnson: We were ready to fold up our tent a few years ago, and we probably would have done it if Montana’s economic development folks had not arranged a low interest loan we needed to further modernize our mill so we could more profitably process smaller diameter trees. That tells me that there is support for the economic and environmental roles Pyramid is playing in our state.

Sanders: More broadly, I’d say that as collaboration’s pioneers age – and none of us are getting any younger – collaboration and forest restoration are attracting some very bright young people who are up to the challenge, and who see our family-owned mills as keys to moving forward in the development of technologies and products that will allow us to get more work done on the ground. If Montana’s wood processing infrastructure loses its ability to sustain itself, the conservationist-led effort to restore our state’s national forests is over.

Evergreen: Who would have ever thought it would come to this?

Johnson: I haven’t seen anything like it in my 57 years in the business. It’s very rewarding to see so many people working together toward the same goal.

Sanders: It’s pretty clear that Congress has an appetite to do something.

Evergreen: “Do something” covers a lot of ground. What’s needed?

Sanders: The fire borrowing mess has to get fixed. Money that should be going into forest restoration work is being borrowed to put out fires. I’d like to see the federal government do what Montana does. We set aside money for fires every biennium. I think there’s currently something like $60 million in the fund, and that’s after paying the 2015 fire bills.

Johnson: People who know a lot more about the inner workings of collaboration tell me it needs a more formal structure than it has here in Montana. Some fear it will become so watered down that it loses its credibility. I don’t know for sure, but I do know we nearly lost momentum, and might have lost it had it not been for the successes we were seeing in northern Idaho.

Evergreen: Success begets success.

Sanders: It absolutely does, especially in the Forest Service. Hard core environmentalists who oppose collaboration and forest restoration beat up on them publicly most every week. Our collaboratives need to be more vocal in their support for the Forest Service.

Evergreen: Governor Steve Bullock becomes chairman of the Western Governors’ Association this summer. A big deal?

Sanders: A very big deal, not just for Montana but for the entire west. I see him as the standard bearer for the collaboratives and the forest restoration work for which they advocating. His approach has been both inclusive and very creative. It is incumbent on all of us who have worked so hard to make this transition do everything in our power to help Governor Bullock be successful in his year as chairman of the Western Governors’ Association.

Evergreen: The transition being the sea change from the days when timber was the centerpiece of the Forest Service’s annual plan to a new era in which timber is a byproduct of a more inclusive stakeholder collaboration leading to forest restoration?

Sanders: I think so. But let’s not leave anyone with the impression that with this new and more holistic approach there is no sense of urgency. The sense of urgency is huge. About half of all the national forest acres in Montana have been lost to insects, diseases, wildfire or a combination of all three over the last decade. We have a lot of work to do in a short time or we will lose what’s left over the next decade.

Evergreen: How about you, Mr. Johnson. You’re the guy who signs 150-some paychecks every week. What do you think about this transition?

Johnson: I certainly agree with what Gordy has said, but at age 79, I look at the world a little differently than I did 25 years ago. Lumbermen are eternal optimists. No matter how bad things get, we get up every morning, put our pants on one leg at a time and go to work in the belief that we can make things better than they were yesterday. You can’t quit for a moment or you will fall behind, and if you fall behind, you will never catch up. You work hard, employ good, hardworking people, produce good products and try to help lift up others in your community. That’s what it’s all about.