Supporting Sustainable Forest Products

Forest land

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 environmental practices.

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 company.

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, cooperation follows.

“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.


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