Marks Lumber of Clancy, MontanaTelling the Timber Story

By Jan Jackson

Marks Lumber of Clancy, MontanaAt first glance, Marks Lumber of Clancy, Montana, is a 75-year-old specialty forest products company that produces and sells quality Douglas fir timbers, rough-sawn boards, circle-sawn flooring, and natural wood siding. Look a little closer, however, and you see a team of people actively telling the story of how active forest management is making Montana a better place to live.

Steve Marks, owner/operator of Marks Lumber, is frustrated with the bad publicity he sees being heaped on the timber industry.

Marks Lumber of Clancy, MontanaThe sawmill is equipped with a rebuilt Ukiah combination edger, a rebuilt Irvington-Moore trimmer, and a Norsman.

“I’ll admit I’m not a scientist, and I only have a 12-year education, but I’ve been on the ranch and in the woods my entire 62 years,” Steve says. “I know that what we do makes for healthy forests, and healthy communities are the result. We have to do a better job of telling that story. We’ve got to keep pounding on that, educating people about why that’s good.”

The Workings of a Specialty Mill

As a specialty mill, Marks Lumber’s primary market is made up of homeowners, contractors, and developers who are interested in quality products for homes and commercial buildings. The mill uses only inland Douglas fir, which grows slower than coastal Douglas fir, creating tighter growth rings and stronger boards. Though the Marks Ranch grows Douglas fir on the property, they don’t have much of it. Consequently, Marks Lumber buys about two million board feet of logs a year from other foresters and loggers.

“We used to saw some lodgepole pine, but when the beetles came through here in 2008, we just elected to quit and went to strictly Douglas fir,” says Steve. “These boards have a beautiful mix of reds from the heartwood and golden yellows from the sapwood, and they are just crazy popular. I don’t necessarily like sawing boards because you create so much more sawdust, but for us, that’s where the market is right now. I am able to buy logs because of my relationships with people, and because our reputation is good, we’ve had pretty good luck keeping our yard full.”

Marks Lumber of Clancy, MontanaGrinding with a 866 Rotochopper.

The sawmill is equipped with a rebuilt Ukiah combination edger, a rebuilt Irvington-Moore trimmer, and a Norsman fabric building for sawdust containment.

Steve says that most of their lumber stays inland, but some is shipped out to customers in Oregon, California, and Colorado who are seeking “that Mountain Modern look.”

Marks Lumber is more than the sawmill. “We have a small logging operation that employs four people (counting the truck driver), with one or two extras in the summer when we can find them,” he adds.

Out in the woods, Steve says the company utilizes a TIMBCO 445 with a Waratah danglehead processor, a John Deere 748 G III, and a Komatsu 238 quick-coupled to a Log Max 7000 dangle head or a Rotobec fixed grapple for road construction and other woods related work.

“It is just a typical mechanical operation with feller bunchers, grapple skidders, and a clam bucket to untangle the downed timber, but it works well for the byproduct part of our business.”

One of those byproducts is the company’s firewood business, which Steve says “is just nuts. Natural gas is so cheap right now, but people still want wood. We ship it all over. It goes down into Southeast Idaho — a lot of it stays in Montana — but we’ll haul it a couple hundred miles one way. I think we sold about 450 truckloads of firewood last year.”

Marks Lumber of Clancy, MontanaMoving wood with the company's Deere.

Storyteller

The urge to tell the industry’s story began forming three years ago when Steve got involved in a program that works to improve forest health, reduce threats from destructive wildfires, and create more jobs and local economic benefits. The program, called the Good Neighbor Authority (GNA), is part of Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), whose revenues come from Montana’s oil and gas, state-owned land, and grazing, mining, and timber.

Initial funding of the GNA program was provided by the Montana DNRC, Montana timber industry, business and conservation partners, the United States Forest Service (USFS), and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Only two short years after it was launched, the program is self-sustaining. One year ago, Steve took an even bigger plunge and redirected his company’s advertising dollars to telling the story himself.

Marks Lumber of Clancy, MontanaSample of logs (top) used for items like this entryway truss (below) created with Marks Lumber’s circle-sawn timbers.

Operations manager Jeremy Glatz, who joined the Marks Lumber team in 2013, pointed out that the program didn’t really come about overnight. In 2014, he said, they began discussing the role of the timber products industry in Montana, “and how important it was to differentiate some of our products from synthetic products and petroleum-based products, specifically over time. We felt that because we had a direct-to-consumer marketing capacity, it was really our responsibility to do some of this type of education because some of our bigger mills don’t have any direct-to-consumer marketing capabilities.”

Jeremy explains that their work toward the goal involved changing marketing companies and agencies, and hiring “gig-type writers,” yet they were not getting the results they were after. “By 2018, we really started making it a priority and eventually just kind of got to the point where we decided we had the budget to bring our own writer in-house.”

Steve reiterates how important that was to their mission. “The first big change I made was hiring our inhouse writer, and it was one of the best business decisions that I’ve ever made. We were doing these blogs, and none of us really loved doing it, so it just wasn’t resulting in anything we were really proud of. We knew we wanted to expand our presence and increase brand recognition, but if we were going to do it right, we needed to find someone who could do it right.” That someone turned out to be creative writer Julia Clary.

Marks Lumber of Clancy, MontanaAlthough changing public perception is not easy, being able to communicate is essential. “It’s just tough out there because we are all up against the for-profit enterprises that package themselves as altruistic. Now we can outsource some of the product types of content, tell our story, and it comes out great,” says Jeremy.

Getting Involved

Steve’s advice for those who want to tell the timber products pro-management story is to get organized and be involved in your state associations.

“These woods are where we love to work,” says Steve. “There are millions of people that have no idea what we do. The guy at the meat counter has that same problem, too, because so many people think meat comes from the store. It’s the same thing with a 2X4. It’s got to come out of a tree. It is simple as that. We’ve got thousands and thousands of acres of dead wood on the ground emitting carbon like crazy when a well-managed forest would be sequestering it. That doesn’t make sense. We’ve just got to do a better job of telling our story and getting involved in the media outlets, including social media. As much as I hate social media, we can use it.”

Steve sums up, “A lot of these small business folks have the same opportunities I have, but they just haven’t elected to go down that path. It’s not a quick return on your dollar, but it dang sure helps, and it is part of our responsibility as stewards of the forests.”

TimberWest November/December 2013
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