By Bryan Lorengo
The long and rich history of sawmilling and logging is prevalent throughout western Montana but few go deeper than in the Bitterroot Valley. The original roots of sawmilling and logging were started in the valley in 1845 by Anthony Ravalli and though things have changed through the years there are still families making a living both logging and sawmilling. This article is on the Conner family, Ryan and Robin, which has its home base south of Darby in the small town of Conner, MT.
Though there were owners previous to Del Conner Lumber (1960’s-70’s) which was located on Mill Road in Conner, MT. The next owner of the mill is a familiar name of Stoltze who at the time (late 70’s-mid 80’s) operated both the sawmill in Conner and Dillon, MT. Stoltze operated the mill in Conner until it sold to Bob Russell with Darby Lumber and was relocated just a few miles north of Conner. Ryan and Robin own the original mill property and now it is the site of their home, office and shops for repair and maintenance on both the logging equipment and helicopters. Not many can say they have a town named after them, but Ryan is proud to reside in the exact location where his family heritage and name continue on.
Ryan Conner started his logging career in 1991 working for a local logger out of Darby by the name of Bill Sundermeyer. His first job was bumping knots on the landing for the yarder and he eventually ended up in the brush hooking logs. In 1993 Ryan started work for both Carson and Colombia helicopters with primary duties as a timber faller. The majority of the helicopter work was based out of Montana and Idaho and included private industrial and agency sales. This was also about the time Ryan started thinking about going out on his own as a logging contractor.
In 1995 Ryan, at the age of 23, started out on his own under the business name of Seldom Logging with the purchase of a line machine and he soon added a second line machine. This was also when Ryan started purchasing his own timber sales something that he continues to do. Ryan’s wife Robin started working with Ryan in 1997 handling all of the office duties and remains in that role today.
In 1999 Ryan and Robin incorporated their business and changed the name to R&R Conner Inc. In 2002 the decision was made to sell both line machines and focus on sorting and selling logs. The first sort yard started out of Salmon, ID and to this day Ryan has found a niche for buying, marketing and selling burned or dead logs. That was followed up with a sort yard in the Flathead (2002-2006), Darby (2008-2012) and currently operating a sort yard in Kooskia, ID. The sort yards were working well but there was an opportunity to not only buy but to log salvage sales. After several years of subcontracting the helicopter services Ryan and Robin decided to purchase their own helicopter and formed R&R Conner Aviation in 2005. To date they remain the only helicopter logging contractor in the state of Montana.
The Conners continue to operate the helicopter business and currently own five UH1 ships and operate two. In 2008 R&R were featured in the “Ax Men” series on the History Channel for both season 2 and 3. The majority of the filming took place on a BLM sale near Potomac. In 2009 R&R was awarded Montana’s first Healthy Forest Restoration Act timber sale. This sale was on the Bitterroot National Forest in the Middle East Fork. This sale was going quite well with R&R using their sort yard in Darby and non-saw material being delivered to Smurfit Stone in Frenchtown. Then came the news of the closure of Smurfit Stone and R&R were stuck with 400 plus loads of dead fir. This spawned the idea of sawmilling and a bandsaw was added to mill beam logs. This also was the start of Smokin-O’s pressed firewood logs and BBQ Smoke Rings for adding smoke flavor.
With the downturn in housing and the closure of the pulp mill in Frenchtown, R&R decided to diversify the helicopter business. They started doing projects in Colorado primarily removing dead hazard trees on ski resorts such as Winter Park, Vail and Steamboat. In 2011 post fire work took R&R to New Mexico and contracted flying for the USFS, with primary work spreading hay as an erosion control measure. That same year R&R started work for Freres Lumber in Mill City Oregon. They continue to operate one helicopter in Oregon and Washington. Starting in 2016 the second helicopter is based out of Kooskia, ID and is doing work on USFS timber sale both on their own sales and contracting to several mills in the area. About the same timeframe R&R added a yoder, a 98 Link Belt yarder and a mechanical side to the mix. They work directly and or deliver logs to IFG, Clearwater Paper and Bennett Lumber Products.
Ryan and Robin acknowledge that logging especially helicopter logging is a very hazardous occupation. They were proud to employ a couple of extraordinary pilots in Bart Colantuono and Josh Tripp. Both Bart and Josh left R&R as employees and bought their own helicopters. Unfortunately, both passed in tragic helicopter crashes. Their thoughts and condolences go out to both the family and friends of Bart and Josh.
With work spread throughout the western states finding and maintaining the correct crew is critical. Ryan is proud to have his son Troy Scott working for the family business. Troy recently graduated college and is working fulltime for his dad and recently started his first job as a project manager. Ryan and Robin also were proud to share that their son Ryley Conner worked this summer in the sort yard in Kooskia. Besides his two boys working for him, his brother Lance subcontracts to R&R along with several other subcontractors. Ryan and Robin are extremely blessed to have started a business and worked hard to grow it from a couple of employees to now employing over 50 with the majority of them residing in the Bitterroot Valley, and so the Conner Timber Root legacy continues.
Ryan and Robin also put together a video to promote the good stewards’ loggers are, if you’d like to watch Logging in the 21st century please check out the you tube link. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1cy4uZhQxU