Last week marked Greg Gianforte’s third visit to Tricon Timber in St. Regis, but it was his first visit as a member of the United States House of Representatives for Montana. His visit took place on Monday, July 3, just one week after he had been sworn in.
“It was a heady experience to be sworn in by House Speaker Paul Ryan and a real honor,” said Gianforte after he had taken a brief tour of the Tricon Lumber Mill. “I just feel honored and humbled to be in this position.”
Gianforte and his wife of 29 years, Susan, had already attended a congressional picnic at the White House their first week in Washington, D.C. President Trump was at the event, but they didn’t get the opportunity to meet him personally. However, the president had called Gianforte after he was elected.
“He was kind enough to call me after the election and we spent about 15 minutes on the phone. I’m a business guy, like he’s a business guy, and we just need more common sense back in Washington and fewer people who have grown up inside the system and more people who have come from the real world,” Gianforte said about his new boss.
As legislators took their July 4 break from Capitol Hill, Gianforte used his time to tour around Montana,
“I’m mostly focused on getting to work. That’s why I’m on this listening tour this week,” he said. “We will be traveling all over the state and these are some of our first official visits. The timber industry is important and that’s why I’m here at Tricon.”
The morning started around a table full of county individuals who are highly invested in the timber industry and realize the impact of government regulation. Two Mineral County commissioners were in attendance, Roman Zylway and Duane Simons. There were also several Tricon employees, including Controller Andy Ehert, Resources Manager Willy Peck, Procurement Angelo Ververis and Vice-President of Operations Calvin Sheahan, along with Jim Arney from the Forest Biometrics Research Institute and House District 14 Rep. Denley Loge.
Already appointed to the Natural Resources Committee and the subcommittee on Public Lands, Gianforte commented about how hard too much government regulation has been for lumber mills like Tricon,
“We need to start to streamline because everyone benefits when we have healthy forests,” he said.
When asked if he felt his constituents back east have a good understanding of some of the issues facing Montana, he said he didn’t think so,
“I think we all know that Washington hasn’t been working for us and that’s my primary goal, to be a voice for Montana back there. The number one thing I heard as I drove the 80 thousand miles all over the state during both races was people are concerned about federal overreach negatively impacting our way of life. We need to have more local decisions because I think better government is local government.”
One way Gianforte is working on getting the job done is by setting up advisory committees. Charles Robinson will be his chief of staff and Leslie Robinson is his state director. Robinson has been helping to pull together the committees which include people in agriculture, health care, natural resources, small business, Indian tribes and veterans.
“We need a sounding board so when legislation comes up, we can reach out to a small group of people and say thumbs up or thumbs down or should we modify it in some way. One of the things I recognize is that you can’t know everything. You’ve got to have people on the front line who know what’s going on. That’s the purpose of the advisory committees,” he said.
Gianforte is also on the Government Oversight and Reform Committee, which is the whistle-blower organization for the agencies and the administration in Congress.
“There’s opportunity there, as well. Our charter is really efficiency and fraud across all of government and so if there’s inconsistencies, please let us know the specifics and so we can act on them,” he told the group.
Tricon employs about 24 percent of Mineral County and has the capability to produce 150 MBF per year. They are currently running at approximately 65 percent capacity with one-third of their timber coming from Idaho, largely due to the inability for loggers to access the timber on national forest service land. The Lolo National Forest in Mineral County has 350 to 400 thousand acres of production forest with a sustainable yield of approximately 120 million board feet.
Several regulatory issues stymie the company’s ability to access more timber. Peck pointed to a map on the wall in the meeting room and showed swaths of forest service land which has been inventoried or designated as roadless areas by federal designation, virtually locking loggers out unless they go through additional regulation to get permission to enter those areas.
“This is where we need more local control,” Peck said. “These are not necessarily wilderness areas and peeling back some of these regulations seems like something we can do.”
Arney also talked about the importance of managing the forest to help curtail a catastrophic fire event. He said that much of the forest is over 100 years old, pointing to the 1910 fire that rolled through a large portion of the northwest, destroying the forests. Trees were replanted throughout the region and they are now dying out, leaving additional kindling if a wildfire breaks out.
“If it’s a young forest, then we can cut the trees and regenerate them and we can have a healthy forest,” Arney said.
If a wildfire were to hit the area, it could affect the railroad, the interstate, the rivers and the towns, he explained. If, for example, 100,000 acres burned it would be worth approximately $300 million in timber, That’s nothing compared to the impact on the health and safety of the area. Plus, it could become a state or national issue if the railroad or interstate was disable for any length of time.
Another topic discussed was the Canadian softwood lumber anti-dumping duties decision. The U.S. Department of Commerce said Canada was “dumping” lumber on the U.S. market at below-market prices, and imposed a duty of 6.87 percent against most Canadian producers. This is on top of a 19.88 percent duty the U.S. imposed on Canadian lumber shipments in April.
“However, the anti-dumping ruling doesn’t look like it really had much of an impact on the lumber markets whatsoever,” said Ehlert.
He said the 19.88 percent duty announced earlier actually had a negative impact on lumber value.
“We’re assuming the Canadians thought it was going to be a 30 percent tariff and once they announced 20 percent, it opened up the gates again and they came back down,” Ehlert said. “So, we lost $40 to $50 per thousand on the average price of lumber. It just didn’t have the impact that they were thinking it was going to have over in D.C.”
The Gianfortes will be traveling from Washington, D.C., to Montana on a weekly basis and will rent a place there, said Susan. While Greg is getting settled into his new office, she will be finding and furnishing their new place.
Gianforte said they had voted on some significant items during his first week and a half in office.
“One of my first votes was a Ryan Zinke bill that made it easier to get logs on trucks related to managing utility easements. It used to be that if there was a utility easement and trees were growing under the power lines you had to go through a full NEPA process to even manage underneath the power lines. So we passed out of the house legislation that says if you have a management plan you don’t have to go through a NEPA process. We also passed a bill that would withhold federal funds to cities that won’t enforce immigration laws basically pulling funds back from sanctuary cities,” he said. “We passed a bill called Kate’s Law which says that if people are here illegally in this country and they commit a felony and they’re deported and they sneak back into the country illegally, the penalties for those crimes are higher. So, we are starting to pass immigration reform out of the house. We also voted and passed a bill that would reduce health care costs by limiting awards in the case of frivolous law suits that’s modeled after some stuff that was done in California. So the House is getting stuff done.”
The coupled traveled to the lumber site in Thompson Falls following their trip to Tricon.