Despite being surrounded by seemingly endless tracts of thick forest, a sawmill owner in Plummer, Idaho, says his mill can’t find enough timber and is now hauling logs from as far away as the Washington coast.
“We have to go where the wood is,” said Todd Brinkmeyer, president of Plummer Forest Products, a three-year-old mill. “When we built the mill we never thought we would be struggling for the fiber as much as we are. Our resource issue has been 100 times more difficult than I ever contemplated.”
The majority of forest in the Inland Northwest is federally owned, but only five of the 750 log trucks that carry loads to the Plummer mill each month carry timber from national forests, Brinkmeyer said in a speech Wednesday in Coeur d’Alene at the annual meeting of the Western Forestry and Conservation Association. Similar frustration was expressed from other sawmill and logging officials attending the gathering.
U.S. Forest Service spokesman Dave O’Brien blamed lawsuits for silencing chain saws on federal land in North Idaho.
“We have four major projects that happen to have large timber volumes associated with them that are all hung up in court right now,” O’Brien said. “When the timber adds up to a certain size it seems to attract a higher propensity for litigation. … It’s holding back a whole lot of volume that certainly could be helping those mills.”
Since the 1980s, the agency has shifted its efforts away from merely supplying timber, O’Brien added. The new focus has been on forest health restoration and protecting communities from wildfire. “The production of wood off the national forests is just one of the benefits that comes from those projects,” he said.
Other Western states, such as Arizona and Colorado, are struggling to find sawmills to process the timber now being thinned from fire-prone forests, O’Brien said. The Inland Northwest is well-equipped to turn logs into lumber, especially with the growing tide of small-diameter logs targeted in fuels reduction projects, he said.
At least four mills in North Idaho and Eastern Washington have invested in specialized saws to cut lumber out of logs as small as 4 inches wide. Plummer Forest Products is the only mill in Idaho that specializes solely in small-diameter logs. Other Idaho mills processing small logs include operations in Kamiah and Three Rivers. Mills in Usk and Colville, Wash., also handle small logs.
Duane Vaagen, president of Vaagen Bros. Lumber in Colville, said the sawmills have the combined capacity to process an extra 300 truckloads of small logs each day.
“This area is better set up for small-log conversion than anywhere in the world,” Vaagen said in an April interview. “The facilities are ready to do it, yet we’re starving.”
Brinkmeyer, of Plummer Forest Products, said he gets three or four calls each year from officials in other Western states asking if he would be willing to move the mill to an area with a guaranteed supply of wood. He said he has no plans to move, but he is continually trying to find new sources of small logs. More wood would mean up to 50 additional jobs in the Plummer area. The mill currently employs 90.
Low interest rates and continued strength in the home construction market has kept demand high for the stud lumber produced at the Plummer mill, Brinkmeyer said. Its computer-operated saw sucks in 20,000 logs per day and spits out three times as many pieces of lumber.
“There’s a big, giant market for those studs,” Brinkmeyer said, adding that his mill’s annual production of 90 million board feet of lumber represents far less than 1 percent of the nation’s output. “We’re a stream into the ocean.”
The mill also produces about 45,000 tons of wood chips. Some are sold and mashed into pulp. Other byproducts, such as bark and wood shavings, are burned in the mill’s boiler, which produces and sells enough electricity to power 4,000 homes.
Loggers say the region’s small log mills have helped them squeeze more money out of the trees they cut. “It gives us the opportunity to take more out of the woods,” said Bob Danielson, owner of Danielson Logging in St. Maries, Idaho.
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