Many in agriculture anticipate a day when consumers
can pick up an item and quickly identify its production
history. For the Neiman family, that day is here. Every one
of its mills has or is in the process of being certified for its
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI) stamp tells
consumers the lumber leaving a certified Neiman mill
was sourced and harvested according to industry
standards for the protection of water quality, biodiversity
and wildlife habitat.
“We are one of the most critical tools, probably the
number one tool I would say, to being able to manage the
forest,” Sonja Merryman said of industries like her family's
Neiman generally acquire logs through timber sales
on federal land, including stewardship sales. Each sale
specifies which trees are to be removed, as determined by
the U.S. Forest Service.
Neiman specializes in ponderosa pine, but they have
adapted many of their mills to accommodate the needs
of the forest to utilize multiple species. While they make
lumber, studs, moulding and heating pellets, they also
sell lumber and biomass to local companies and R&D
manufacturers for mulch, animal bedding, or to make into
windows, cabinets and more.
“There is zero waste,” said Merryman, the company’s
community relations director. “We even burn much of our
biomass and use that as a renewable source of energy.”
Forging Relationships to Better Utilize Waste
The family has long understood the success of its business
relies on resilient, well-managed forests. Early in his career,
Jim Neiman, the company’s president and Merryman’s
father, became interested in production processes that
protect and improve watersheds, thinning trees in a way
that supports the quality, flow and storage of water.
Concern about limbs left behind by loggers led the
company to forge a relationship with tribal members who
shared an interest in eliminating and using waste that
otherwise would be piled up and burned. In the wake of
recent catastrophic wildfires in Oregon and California, the
Neimans are involved in efforts to clean up burned and
rotting timber, move it to mills across the country and find
uses for it.
“My father,” Merryman said, “has put an emphasis from
the very beginning on not only creating high-quality
renewable timber products, but being good stewards of
the land. He's always exploring opportunities to utilize the
waste or biomass in the forests. How can we add value and
still keep forest health as our core value.”
With their reliance on public forests, the Neimans work
with an array of outside groups – the U.S. Forest Service,
other industry representatives, community groups
and conservationists. Where interests overlap,
“We’re really connected with the conservation groups.
They’re one of our best allies because what’s best for the
forest is what’s best for the animals.”
Wild turkeys, for example, need open canopy to fly
through; elk, thinned areas for travel across the forest
floor. The ponderosa pine that the Neimans specialize in
have similar needs – a canopy that lets in some sun and
room for growth while still providing protective shade.
Good harvest practices support wildlife, habitat and the
regeneration of trees, Merryman said.
Where interests conflict, tension can develop. In the
Black Hills, where the Neimans operate two of their four
mills, recreational users and loggers don’t always agree
on how best to accommodate each other. Nobody has
ill intent, Merryman said. It’s a matter of listening to and
understanding everyone’s needs.
“So much of this is creating a conversation in a safe place,”
Merryman said. “Something that I continue to learn is
everything starts with relationships.”
Building Long-Term Partnerships
Merryman credits her father’s and the company’s
stewardship with giving the company credibility in tough
conversations. It also has helped build trust with other
stakeholders. Sustainable practices are increasingly part
of standard business procedures in the lumber industry,
Merryman said. But having been early adopters, Neiman
has long-term partnerships that open doors to projects
and opportunities, she said.
Employees take pride in working for a company
committed to doing right by forests and, in turn, local
communities that rely on them, she added. Neiman, for
example, supports science education for students in the
communities where they operate. In Hulett, Wyoming,
where Neiman still operates its original mill, they have
invested in a golf course, airport and full-time medical
center, all aimed at giving employees and others in the
community a high quality of life.
“We have people who have been working for us for 50
years,” Merryman said. “They have been so committed to
the organization and community and helping it succeed.”
That includes a decade-long commitment to earning
certification through the SFI. The time and resources
required for certification met resistance from some people
early on, Merryman said. But today, the SFI stamp is seen
as a testament to the company’s values and practices.
“It’s a beautiful thing to be able to brand sustainability
onto every piece of fiber that we produce,” Merryman said.