Rocky Mountain sawmills rebound

But the industry says it needs more timber.

  • Beetle-killed lodgepole pines cover a hillside among living Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir on the west slope of the Snowy Mountains in Wyoming. Pine beetles have killed about 76,000 acres of forest in Wyoming.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • Saratoga Forest Management, the largest sawmill in the area, employs about 150 people.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • A worker at Saratoga sawmill feeds logs into a horizontal resaw, which slices intact logs into 2-inch or 4-inch thick slabs.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • Green wood from the sawmill is stacked to be loaded into the kiln for heat-treating.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • Steam rises from kilns which treat wood to remove moisture and prevent warping at the reopened Saratoga sawmill in Wyoming.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • A truck, viewed through the planer building, prepares to haul finished material from Saratonga Forest Managment.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • Two-by-fours are stained blue from a fungus that pine beetles carry.

    Jonny Armstrong
 

When the afternoon work break ends at Saratoga Forest Management, an earsplitting ruckus resumes as dozens of sawmill workers return to their posts. Inside the two-story facility, timber is debarked, sawed, sorted and sent to dry in a kiln. By day’s end, the mill will crank out 300,000 board feet of premium studs — enough framing lumber for about 20 average-sized American houses. Not bad for a business that was sitting idle 18 months ago.

All the lumber produced here comes from pine-beetle-killed or infected lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce, with many studs carrying the distinctive blue stain of beetle damage. Saratoga, a small southern Wyoming town of fewer than 1,700, sits in the midst of the state’s most severe pine-beetle outbreak, says Clint Georg, who reopened the mill with partners in January 2013 after a 10-year lull.

The Saratoga mill and another recently restarted stud mill in Montrose, Colorado, are reviving the Rocky Mountain region’s wood-products industry. Both use beetle-killed wood to produce lumber. The byproducts, like sawdust and wood chips, are used by other businesses to make stove pellets, building materials and other goods. Other scraps go to a biomass power plant to produce electricity. Together, these industries are putting beetle-killed trees to use, perhaps reducing forest fire risks in the process. Yet the mills remain hampered by a lack of raw materials.

The Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region, which includes Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and most of South Dakota and Wyoming, now sells far fewer board-feet than it once did, as the agency emphasizes new-era forestry that relies less on logging the biggest trees. But it’s begun pursuing “stewardship contracts” in beetle-infected areas, where contractors harvest some big trees but also thin smaller-diameter trees and brush to reduce fire danger, especially around campgrounds and roadsides. That program is supporting new jobs in the woods and sending some timber to the Saratoga and Montrose mills.

But Georg and others say the contracts aren’t clearing large-enough stands of dead and dying trees; the stud mills, lacking enough timber, can’t run at full capacity. They need logs and timber sales to stay afloat, Georg says, and the businesses using the byproducts need the mills.

With wood trickling in instead of flowing, Georg and others are worried that the uptick in their business may not last. Neither the industry nor the agency has quite figured out how to restore forest health while guaranteeing a steady flow of timber.

“This shortfall cuts across companies regardless of their size or products,” says Tom Troxel, executive director of the Intermountain Forest Association, which represents industry in the three states, “and it threatens the resurgent industry.”

 

When the beetles kicked into high gear last decade, the Saratoga mill was shuttered. Georg blames the closure partly on pressure from environmentalists, saying the reduction of logging in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies and a rise in timber-sale lawsuits reverberated throughout the West. Supplies from national forests dwindled, so wood-products manufacturers turned to international markets. Timber sale volumes in the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region were, until recently, roughly one-third of the amount harvested in the 1980s and early ’90s. After a 1999 fire, the Saratoga mill never reopened. Some smaller mills in the region, boosted by timber sales, boomed during the housing run of the mid-2000s, but busted with the recession. Wyoming had 34 operating sawmills in 1983 and 21 in 2005; today, there are only a dozen.

When lumber prices and home construction rose again, however, Georg and his partners — eying Wyoming’s huge supply of beetle-kill — decided to reopen the Saratoga mill and upgrade its equipment. Today, the mill, which produces over 200 tons of chips and sawdust daily, supports local businesses that manufacture stove pellets, animal bedding and other products. Some of the sawdust and chips supplies the new biomass power plant in Gypsum, Colorado, the state’s first, which produces electricity for thousands of homes.

“A sawmill is the only thing that can economically operate at a landscape scale for forest health,” says Georg, “and it allows other industries to thrive off the byproducts.” The mill alone provides 100 onsite jobs and another 50 for contract truckers and drivers — and if it ran multiple shifts, those numbers would nearly double. Saratoga, Montrose and many other regional mills, though, currently can run only a single shift each day. The national forests in South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado meet just two-thirds of the industry’s regional capacity.

Annual timber sales are slowly increasing in the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region as industry capacity rebounds, but the totals represent less than 1 percent of the region’s timber base, says Norm Birtcher, resource forester at Montrose Forest Products. Once dead trees rot or topple during blowdowns, they become harder and more expensive to harvest and can lose their timber value. But if they’re not removed, they increase fire risks, says Birtcher, adding: “If we don’t manage it, Mother Nature will.”

Some forest ecologists question whether logging is the best way to manage the beetle-kill crisis or reduce fire risk. Recent research suggests beetle outbreaks don’t affect the likelihood of wildfires, and that logging can’t overcome the impacts of climate change. A 2013 analysis from Northern Arizona University concluded that thinning and clearing overcrowded stands can reduce the frequency and severity of large wildfires, however.

To that end, the Forest Service has implemented stewardship contracts to balance the costs of thinning low-value wood and removing biomass with the payout from harvesting larger trees. Brian Kittler of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, a forest-policy think tank, calls stewardship contracts “one of those quiet policy wins. It’s the right kind of tool for a lot of ecological objectives,” since the long-term deals provide benefits to both industry and the national forests.

The four 10-year stewardship contracts currently in place in Colorado and Wyoming treat about 7,300 acres on several national forests. They give successful bidders time to carry out projects in unhealthy or burned-over areas and offer enough stability to develop financing and markets, says Rick Cooksey, director of state, private and tribal forestry programs for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region.

Two of the four contracts went to West Range Reclamation, based in Hotchkiss, Colorado, which daily sends 12 truckloads of wood chips from the White River National Forest to the Gypsum biomass plant. West Range’s other stewardship contract along Colorado’s Front Range sends some timber to the Saratoga mill and sustains West Range’s own smaller mill in Eaton, Colorado, as well as a new doweling plant in Laramie, Wyoming, and businesses that manufacture landscaping mulch and other wood products.

 

Georg and others, including Chuck Dennis, West Range’s chief forester, believe the program and other timber sales still need to expand, however. “There’s a role for stewardship contracts,” Georg says. But they’re small-scale efforts, and industry proponents want bigger projects that thin more forests and also produce more blue-stained timber for the housing market.

The Forest Service is “trending in the right direction,” says Jacqueline Buchanan, the agency’s Rocky Mountain Region director of renewable resources. The regional management budget has increased and includes some landscape-scale restoration projects in southwestern Colorado and South Dakota’s Black Hills. Agency grants also support new bio-energy development projects and businesses. But, Buchanan adds, the Forest Service has a long list of responsibilities, including wildlife habitat protection and recreation management to balance against timber harvest.

Back at Saratoga, Clint Georg believes his business and others can play a role in forest management while also re-establishing the industry. But as the day shift nears an end, he laments that Saratoga still lacks a night shift — and won’t have one unless it gets more logs. “Nobody in this industry should feel too secure,” Georg says.