CLANCY, Montana – Some businesses in the forest products industry go above and beyond to defend the industry from left-wing environmentalists who would malign it, and to engage the public in a dialogue about the benefits of forest management.
Marks Lumber in Clancy, Montana, is one of them.
Headed by 62-year-old Steve Marks, Marks Lumber has a long history in Montana and in the sawmill industry. Steve’s family came to the state in 1890. His great-grandfather was a rancher, but in the early 1900s he put in a sawmill to supplement his income. His grandfather and father cut mining timber at the mill through the 1960s.
Steve has been operating the mill full-time since 1989 and, over the years, has expanded and upgraded the equipment and operations. “We keep growing and improving,” said Steve.
Clancy is an unincorporated community in southwest Montana, only 12 miles south of the capital city of Helena. It is situated at 4,250 feet on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains and only 10 miles from the Continental Divide.
Marks Lumber now consists of seven buildings totaling 55,000 square feet under roof. The company employs 25 people and produces 2 million board feet of specialty lumber products a year. However, the company has been doing more than just growing and improving.
In 2020, Marks Lumber launched the first video in an ongoing educational series that promotes the benefits of science-based forest management. The goal of the program is to share the message that responsible forestry creates enduring benefits for conserving natural resources like wildlife, water, air, and forests.
The company has now published four videos. They feature professional foresters and others sharing their knowledge about sustainable forest management.
“I just had a desire to talk about forestry,” recalled Steve. “Our process starts in the forest.”
Liberal environmentalists have painted the forest products industry with a “black eye,” noted Steve. “Really, we’re the garden keepers,” he said. “I just wanted to convey that message at a level that folks understood.”
The company’s media campaign is getting noticed. Marks Lumber has earned several awards in recent years. In 2021, it received the Montana Wood Products Association Communicator of the Year Award, the Montana Tree Farm System Logger of the Year Award, and the Helena Area Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year Award. The company was also the recipient of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s inaugural Forest Products Award.
Marks Lumber already had a website and a Facebook page, but Steve realized he needed someone who could write steadily to provide the kind of messages he wanted to put out. “In the process, we hired Julia Clary. And she’s done a fantastic job with it,” he said.
The company publishes a weekly blog on its website. The educational videos are available through the website and the company’s Youtube channel. The videos and blogs are promoted through Facebook, as well as through emails to customers and others. The videos and blogs are being promoted by several trade organizations, too. “We’ve gotten a ton of traction out of this,” said Steve.
“We want to drive people to our business, obviously, but second, we want to promote good forestry and what it takes to have healthy forests and communities.”
The company has published four videos so far and plans to publish a couple more this year. They are 2-5 minutes long and are professionally produced by a marketing company.
To view the videos, visit the company’s website at www.markslumber.us and
click on the “Blog” tab, or go to www.youtube.com and type “Marks Lumber” in the search window.
After graduating from high school in 1967, Steve put a crew together and began logging. When an economic downturn hit in the early 1980s, he went to work for a local mill. He took over the family ranch operations in 1983. He bought more cattle and later diversified by getting back into the sawmill business.
“We’ve always been tied to natural resource extraction of one kind or another,” noted Steve, referring to mineral rights, working mines, and supplying and harvesting timber.
The mill cut a lot of pine railroad ties for several years until the market withered, then focused on rough lumber and making improvements. In 1998, Steve put in a planer mill and then began finishing lumber and making specialty lumber products. He put in a new sawmill in 2000, a project that took two years to complete.
Over the years, Steve has bought used equipment at auctions and elsewhere, then had it refurbished, customized, and computerized. “We keep improving the sawmill infrastructure,” said Steve. He has added a debarker, a resaw, a chipper, upgraded the head rig, and is currently putting in a new edger-combination trimmer. One of the latest additions was a Rotochopper grinder to process residual material into wood fiber products.
His son, Cody, 40, helps out in the business, although he has no interest in a management role. Cody does timber framing for the company and constructs new buildings for Marks Lumber.
Steve’s wife, Laura, has worked side-by-side with him since 1989. With an accounting degree and a minor in business, she was well suited to be the company’s business manager. She chose to retire when she turned 60 to care for Steve’s parents and her parents although she still does some accounting. “We’ve been blessed with hiring really good people in the last few years,” observed Steve, which made it possible for his wife to step away from the business.
Marks Lumber cuts primarily Douglas fir. “Right now it’s exclusively Doug fir,” noted Steve. “We used to cut other species, but it became an inventory nightmare. And the demand for fir has been crazy, so we’re just doing fir.”
Marks Lumber primarily purchases gate wood, and Steve obtains approximately 75% of his logs from a single forester. “We buy the best logs we can buy and pay a high price for them,” said Steve. He buys logs down to a 7-8-inch top, up to 40 inches at the butt end, and up to 37-40 feet long. “Almost all lengths work for us,” said Steve, since the sawmill produces random lengths of lumber.
In the log yard, trucks are unloaded with a Doosan DX25LL shovel, and the logs are stacked in high decks. Steve purchased a used CTR bucking saw and put a John Deere motor on it; it is controlled remotely by the Doosan operator. He bucks the logs to length, then grades and stacks them. “It works really well,” said Steve. “It reduced our log processing costs.”
A couple of Komatsu WA270-7 wheel loaders retrieve logs and feed them to a Morbark 640 Rosser head debarker. From the debarkers, the logs travel to an infeed deck where they are kicked onto the mill’s log deck.
The head rig is a Morbark 48-inch carriage that moves the log through a 56-inch circular saw with a 36-40-inch top saw with Simonds blades. It was upgraded a few years ago with linear positioners, Paw Taw John controls, and a JoeScan log scanner. “That was a huge success,” said Steve.
Although there is a resaw behind the head rig, the head saw is not used simply to square up the log. “We do so many things,” said Steve, “depending on the log and what the mill is cutting. The head rig will square the log to a 2-inch, 4-inch, or 6-inch cant that will go to the resaw or the edger. Logs are typically sawn on the head rig to a 4-inch or 6-inch cant.
Material 8 inches and wider goes to the resaw to slice off boards. The resaw is a Brewco 1600 band mill with a merry-go-round that has been refurbished; the resaw, which runs a 2-inch band blade, was purchased new years ago – the last machine that was bought new – but has since been refurbished.”
The existing edger is a Union Ironworks machine made in the 1950s. Steve is in the process of having a Ukaih edger completely rebuilt by Columbia Construction in Columbia Falls, Montana to replace the old Union machine; it will be a completely hands-free edger.
Also planned in the upgrade is a new 20-foot Irvington-Moore trimmer that has been refurbished.
“We’re kind of a specialty mill,” observed Steve. “There are not many outfits that make specialty stock machines.” It has been his practice to build equipment in-house or to remodel or refurbish machines to fit the needs of Marks Lumber. “Before Internet bidding, you could go to an auction and buy machines for pennies on the dollar,” noted Steve.
The mill produces random length and width lumber, 1-2 inches thick and up to 12 inches wide. About 40 percent of the company’s production goes to the planer mill to be remanufactured. The workhorse of the planer mill is a refurbished Stetson-Ross 612 planer with profile capabilities that can surface four sides or put a pattern or relief on the bottom surface. “It’s a good machine for a lot of different pattern work,” said Steve.
Fresh sawn lumber is dried in the company’s kiln – which Marks Lumber built themselves – and then stored under cover. The kiln can hold 40,000 board feet per charge.
Marks Lumber manufactures top quality rough-sawn timbers, several types of wood sidings, and tongue and groove center match flooring. Siding and similar products include drop siding, bevel edge siding, shiplap, and WP4.
Most of the company’s products are sold retail to local end users within 150 miles, although some orders are shipped to customers as far away as Texas, Florida, and New York. “They find us on the web or whatever,” said Steve. A Google search for “circle sawn lumber” calls up Marks Lumber in the top four for that string of search words. The company also markets via email and has a weekly blog on the website. Most sales are organic, meaning from those customers who have bought material in the past, but the company is also referred to people who become new customers.
Wholesale sales account for less than 5% of total production. “We may have to do more than that, but right now we don’t have to,” said Steve.
It has been difficult to find loggers, so Steve has invested in some equipment and hired a crew that will start logging in early June, after the spring break-up. The crew will be equipped with a Timbco 445 harvester and a Waratah 622B harvester attachment, a Komatsu 3208 excavator and a Logmax 7000XT harvester attachment, as well as a couple of John Deere grapple skidders.
With the latest improvement project (the new edger and trimmer), “We’re going to be pretty content with that for several years,” said Steve. “It’s going to make a huge difference in our safety and production. It’s going to be easier on our employees. And it’s going to cut down on our order times significantly.”
“We are probably the largest of the small mills in Montana,” said Steve. “We can change what we’re doing very quickly. We don’t have to retool anything.” A stud mill, for example, relies on high volume production. “We don’t have to do that,” said Steve. “We can change the workflow immediately, and cut different products. We’re a specialty mill. We saw a lot of orders. If things get slow in one area, we can do something else.”
The company pays close attention to residual materials. It sells firewood and wood chips certified for playground surfaces. “We run a very clean, neat operation,” said Steve.
Marks Lumber has six paid holidays, and eligible employees receive two weeks of paid vacation. The company also sponsors a 401(k) retirement savings plan for employees.
“The labor market is extremely difficult,” said Steve. “Inflation is killing us. It’s killing everybody. There’s hyper-inflation in wages, too. We have to be careful that we don’t pay more than we can afford.”
Steve has served for a number of years on the board of directors of the Montana Wood Products Association. He is also a member of the Montana Loggers Association, the Montana Taxpayers Association, and the National Federation of Independent Business.
When asked about hobbies or interests, Steve replied, “I work a lot. I probably work 60 hours per week in the summer.” However, he has seven grandchildren, and he enjoys spending time with them. The oldest ones are involved in motor sports, and the youngest ones enjoy horses, as does Steve. He also enjoys mountain biking, taking bikes along when he travels, and camping.
“I just believe in doing the best we can and treating people the way we want to be treated,” said Steve, “customer or employee. We’ve always believed that if you do things right, things will work out. My word is as good as gold. Honesty is paramount in our operation.”