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Timber Roots - Sean Steinbach

By Justin Doble

The timber industry in Montana can be a treacherous and difficult path to navigate and when you are a forester for one of the largest sawmills remaining in the state, you know the challenges all too well.  Few industry professionals are more at the forefront of the fight for forest health than Sean Steinebach.  The Steinebach timber roots can not only be traced back decades, but generations.  From Sean’s grandfather logging the steep slopes of western Montana, to his uncle's working in the sawmills, to Sean's dad manning lookouts and aerial observation flights over the Helena and Lewis & Clark National Forest, the Steinebach family timber roots run deep.

            Sean’s passion for good forestry stems from his YCC days a Willow Creek High School.  The Youth Conservations Corps gave Sean an opportunity to work with USFS survey crews during the summer and be a representative for the agency at the county fair and other places.  Sean really enjoyed engaging with the public about the YCC and USFS and about the good work he felt they were doing.  His enjoyment and pride in the agency’s work would soon take a hit as few would seem to acknowledge the increasing forest health and fire problem.  Though Sean’s passion for good forest health only grew stronger, the goal of one day working for the USFS began to change. 

            After graduation Sean headed west in and later earned an Associate of Science Degree from Shoreline Community College in Seattle.  While attending school, Sean worked several odd jobs.  Everything from bartending to a music store, to an auto auction.  No job, however, was more exciting than playing in a rock band at the height of the grunge rock movement in Seattle.  Though the band would have a few small brushes with fame through the years, in 1997 Sean moved back home to Montana and enrolled in the University of Montana’s forestry program.

            While attending the U of M Sean worked 2 summers at the University’s Lubrecht Experimental Forest building fence, rock walls, thinning, and maintaining equipment. Later he put his growing knowledge to work for some local loggers in the area, falling timber and operating equipment.   After graduating from the U of M with a Bachelor of Science Degree in 2001, Sean continued to work in the woods, taking a job for Woodland Restoration as a forester and operator.  At the time Woodland Restoration specialized in low-impact forestry focused on forest health.  Sean was responsible for carrying out the prescription on the ground using cut-to-length harvesting equipment and engaging with private landowners on how their objectives would be met through harvest.  This really fueled Sean’s passion for good forestry.  To help in the building of a harvest plan, and then implementing the plan with equipment and boots on the ground is what he felt it was supposed to be like.

            In 2004 Sherm Anderson purchased the Louisiana Pacific sawmill in Deer Lodge and was looking for a forester. Enjoying the work and wanting to push himself further, Sean was hired for the job for what is now Sun Mountain Lumber.  Building on those skills and passion for good forestry.  Some of Sean’s duties included preparing timber sales, administration and application of resource protection, utilization and job quality.

At the time Sun Mountain Lumber had a great core group of foresters and Sean was excited to soak up some of the knowledge from such an experienced group of guys.

            In 2008, with markets looking grim Sean became concerned that if things got worse, he would be the first forester to get laid off. Talking with him today, he knows that was not true.  He is confident that Sherm and Sun Mountain Lumber would have weathered the storm with him.  But with a young and growing family at home, Sean had to think about continuing to provide in case the markets got worse.  With the dark cloud of the great recession looming Sean moved on from the job he loved so much and took a job with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in Anaconda as a service forester.

            Working for the DNRC brought new opportunities. Sean would get a chance to work with educators to bring forest knowledge into the classroom. He helped write up grants and project development with the Anaconda Tree Committee and worked on finding new and existing uses and outlets for forest products and biomass material.  Sean also took on the responsibilities of contracting and administration of forestry projects on the 4,000 forested acre Montana State Prison Ranch outside Deer Lodge.

            While working as a liaison between the USFS Helena Ranger District and contractors on the Chessman Flume Project outside Helena, Sean was approached about a new program coming up in the DNRC called Good Neighbor Authority.  The new GNA program would allow the USFS to enter into agreements with the DNRC to do critical management work. Coming off the Chessman Flume Project near Helena, Sean knew that the USFS and DNRC working together was going to be the way to get things done in the future.  He jumped at the chance.

            Sean began looking for projects that might be eligible for the new GNA program.  He found a great project area up Gold Creek, outside Drummond.  He did not however take in to count the stiff resistance he might face trying to get the project off the ground.  He knew there was serious value in the program if someone would just be brave enough to take a chance on it.  Years would go by without any decision. The GNA program was stuck in the mud. 

            It was 2021 before all the pieces of the puzzle would come together and the project that Sean had worked so hard on since 2016 finally came together.  It was a go.  The Project would later be named Rancho Deluxe and would become the very first in a long line of great GNA projects to come.  Just days before Rancho Deluxe was approved, Sean had agreed to take an Outreach Forester job at Sun Mountain Lumber. Nearly ready to give up on the project, Sean was looking ahead to the future.  He knew he loved engaging with the public, local, state, and federal partners and wanted to continue in that work but with more room to grow.  He could do that at Sun Mountain.

            Today Sean is considered one of the hardest working guys in the industry.   He is in an astounding number of collaboratives and working groups such as American Forest Resource Council, Beaverhead-Deer Lodge Working Group, Lolo Restoration Committee, Custer-Gallatin Working Group, and BLM Resource Advisory Council just to name a few.  He continues his community outreach by participating in career fairs, working with schools, giving interviews, and hosting mill tours.  Sean has even participated in harvesting the Montana Capitol Christmas tree for the last several years.  He has received several awards over the years for his hard work and dedication to the timber industry and forest health in Montana. Most recently Sean was awarded the 2023 Montana Wood Products Association “Communicator of the Year” award and the 2024 Northwest Montana Hoo-Hoo “Woodpecker of the Year” award.  When asked about what he is most proud of in his career, Sean goes back to the GNA program.  Without question, helping get the Rancho Deluxe project off the ground is what he is most proud of today.  The project set the bar for so many good forestry projects to come, giving agencies a way to get things done in a timely manner. 

            Rancho Deluxe isn’t just special for being the first GNA project. It is also the site where Sean and his childhood sweetheart, Amy got married in 2019.  Merging her and his families together.  Sean brought with him 2 kids Hunter and Josie, from a previous marriage and Amy brought a son, also named Sean.  When the family isn’t working at home on an addition or a kitchen remodel, you can find them exploring the mountains or fishing in a stream somewhere.  Recreating in the same area Sean works regularly. The area he loves.  That is one of the many reasons Sean is so good at what he does. He doesn’t just preach good forest management, he lives it.  Spending his free time, (what little there is) in the same places he works so hard to protect and promote good forest management.

            When asked where he sees the timber industry in the next 20 years, Sean believes if we are successful in what we are doing right now. It might be different. But there will still be a forest products industry in Montana.  He believes the efforts that are being made right now are paying off.  The industry is being smart moving forward and showing the value of what we do.  And with good folks like Sean Steinebach at the forefront of industry outreach, Montana’s timber industry is looking bright.

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