It was a packed room as representatives from the federal, state, and county government met with local business owners and residents to discuss timber industry issues and the economic plight facing Mineral County. The meeting which brought the parties together on Jan. 3, was the Mineral County Resource Coalition, and has been organized monthly by Kevin Chamberlain, with the extension office.
“We are definitely making headway with this collaboration,” he said, “it was established a few years ago and it usually takes five to ten years to see good results, but we are seeing them now. It’s the result of a perfect storm to have several key parties coming to the table. The county commissioners, school representatives, hospital, forest service, DNRC (Department of Natural Resources and Conservation), and local businesses.”
Fairly recent legislation such as The Good Neighbor Authority, and the 2014 Farm bill, allow for forestry management under an expanded federal-state partnership effort which aims to increase and streamline work on federal lands. The Department of Natural Resources works side-by-side with the U.S. Forest Service to ensure the program delivers environmental, as well as economic benefits, to the state and counties.
Over the past 100 years, the timber industry was the primary economic driver for Mineral County. While the timber industry remains the economic base, the industry has been in a steady decline since the 1990’s. It is now a fraction of what it once was in its heyday.
Coupled with the fact that over 90 percent of Mineral County is owned by the federal government, programs like Good Neighbor, the Farm Bill, and The Forest Stewardship Program, have a big impact on the local economy. Especially as the county’s unemployment rate looms around 9 percent, compared to 4 percent for Montana.
“The county is now part of the process,” said Chamberlain about the new legislation, “which in the past was basically unheard of, and now we can bring projects to the table.”
But there are a number of questions regarding how programs are run and various departments are still learning how to work with one another. Local business owners questioned Carol McCauslin, the director of acquisition management with the United State Department of Agriculture, as to why large contracts often are awarded to companies from out of the area and sometimes, out of state.
McCauslin replied that her department works with a limited staff and a limited budget. Therefore, they have to find efficiencies and sometimes, that may mean that a contract goes to a larger, out-of-state company.
“If it’s region-wide, then the contract needs to cover all of the area,” she said. “However, contracts set at $150,000 or less, are automatically set aside for small businesses.”
Criteria, such as experience, past performance, and price, are all evaluation factors. Local consideration is also an evaluation factor, but it’s up to the department creating the package to say that it should be high on the list.
“It’s an evaluation factor, however, if it’s a Stewardship (Forest Stewardship Program) then local is a part of the factor automatically,” she said. “You can put emphasis on it staying local, when it’s submitted. It doesn’t automatically mean it will stay local, but it does become higher level preference.”
District Ranger for the Lolo National Forest, Carol Johnson, said she will make sure that will be a key consideration for future packages her staff puts together.
McCauslin said other options are available that may help keep the work local. Including utilizing things like small business programs, as well as women and vet owned businesses, which will eliminate some of the competition. Businesses could also enter into joint ventures, partnerships, be subcontractors to a larger job, or a project could have multiple contractors. If the area covers a larger region, there may be multiple awards given out.
When jobs do come up in the area, she suggested having a pool of people kept on file, who can work on projects.
“If you have a workforce ready and their contact information is available, then someone could come in and hire local,” McCauslin said.
Chamberlain said there will be a meeting within the next few weeks to set up a temp agency for local work. Up until now, they had been using a temp agency in Missoula. The agency will be administered through the Mineral County Economic Development Corporation.
Representatives from the DNRC were also at the meeting and discussed how these programs can be administered, along with Forest in Focus funds. A part of this restoration strategy is designed to promote active management of forests and a sustainable timber supply
Two projects are currently on the table, one near DeBorgia and the other on Round Mountain near Tarkio.
Mo Bookwalter, USFS-DNRS Liaison, suggested they test the Good Neighbor Authority and see how it works, “start small, maybe with Round Mountain as a preliminary area and then move to bigger projects.”
As the group discussed other project possibilities, Chamberlain commented that it was nice to see the state (DNRC) engage in these projects, rather than counties trying to deal with federal agencies. Angelo Ververis, with Tricon, also commented that the DNRC should be involved with local projects early in the process before it gets too far into the development phase. This way they can find the best options and see what will work, “some projects may fit better than other units,” he said.
As the three-hour meeting came to a close, Johnson commented that this was a good meeting, “it brought a lot of good ideas to the table and we all learned several ways that we can work together. It gives us an avenue to get our folks talking to each other.”