Montrose Lumber Mill Hopes to Remain Viable Through Timber Contracts
MONTROSE – A successful and operational timber mill in Montrose can play an important role in maintaining a healthy regional forest and a healthy regional economy, Montrose Forest Products General Manager Norm Birtcher emphasized at forum at Heidi’s Brooklyn Deli.
The lumber mill at 6530 Road east of Montrose is now being operated as Montrose Forest Products by the Wyoming-based Neiman Enterprises, Inc., Birtcher said at a Nov. 14 presentation, it requires a steady stream of timber contracts remain economically viable.
“It’s precarious, but I feel like we have good support,” Birtcher said of operators’ relationship with the U.S. Forest Service. “There were a number of sales that were turned back two years ago. We have petitioned the Forest Service to re-offer a number of those, as expeditiously as possible.”
The mill was bought out of receivership by Neiman Enterprises in early September; since that time, it has been fully operational, he said.
“We employ 89 people full time. We are up and running, operating five days a week. In October, we only missed [two-and-a-half] days,” only because “we didn’t have any logs. There are at least 100 people working in the woods as loggers and trucking contractors. And then I would guess between all the tire dealers, fuel suppliers and direct employers, there are probably – spouses and children included – at least 1,000 people, who will get part of their dinner tonight because we have a sawmill here.”
The mill has the capacity to cut about 300,000 board feet a day, processing Engelmann spruce, lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, subalpine fir and some ponderosa pine into various lengths of building studs.
The mill, the largest remaining lumber mill in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, is, Birtcher said, on the leading edge of technology with the computer systems it uses for timber-processing.
“One thing you may not know is that the timber industry is being really progressive in using computers to optimize lumber output,” he said. “Every log, before it enters the saws, is scanned by laser beams. The optimum solution for that log is derived from that computer, and happens very quickly. We are fortunate to have computer-driven solutions in our mill, and we feel it makes it special – it helps us better utilize the resources.”
The milled lumber is sold in a variety of places –to lumber dealers in Montrose and, Birtcher said, in markets from the Front Range to Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Arizona.
Although its lumber is not now being sold overseas, he said, that could happen, as the lumber processed at the mill is heat treated, as is required by many countries, to kill fungus and organisms before export.
Birtcher emphasized that while the mill’s new owner is optimistic, both short- and long-term, the mill’s ultimate success depends on timber contracts – and a healthy housing market. With wildfires and with the spread of pine and bark beetles threatening the health of Colorado’s forests, he said, perhaps more people will understand that a productive lumber mill can play an important part in keeping forests healthy.
“Why is it important to forest health?” Birtcher asked rhetorically. “The image of the logger over the past few years that has been portrayed by the environmental community is an ogre that rapes, pillages and destroys forests. I don’t think it is coincidental that about 20 years after many sawmills in the West closed, for a lack of timber supply, we have significant increases in catastrophic wildfires and catastrophic insect problems.
“It’s not coincidental that it happened.”
That said, Birtcher emphasized his belief that consensus exists that forest devastation can be managed through timber contracts, which will,over time, bring the forests to the right density levels – and keep them full of healthy trees. Trees in overgrown lodgepole thickets don’t get the sunlight, moisture and space they need to be healthy, he reminded the audience.
Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest Supervisor Scott Armentrout, who has been in that job since early September, said after the meeting that there is a heightened awareness about the need to “treat” acreage for forest health, and that a mill hungry for lumber is a benefit to taxpayers.
“We have seen forests that are too dense and not as resilient because of different factors,” Armentrout said. “We are trying to increase the acres treated every year.”
Regarding “the question of the mill, and supply,” he said, “we have a lot of work to do in the forests. To have somebody who is interested in offsetting the costs of treatment through timber purchases is great.” To the extent that “we can treat acres without having to use taxpayer dollars, and the more we can do that, the better off we are going to be,” he said.
“It’s one of the reasons we are so excited to have the mill in operation here.”
Armentrout went on to emphasize his belief that the supply of timber contracts available to purchasers is “steady and sustainable,” although there is a need to increase the size, scope and scale of treatments.
The Forest Service, he said, is working on its strategic plans, and will have timber contracts up for sale through a competitive bid process throughout the year.
By October 2013, a new program should be in place. “Depending on our budget we are in good shape to deliver a good supply” of lumber, he said. “ We are really wanting to work in partnership with industry partners ,who can get a lot of work done out on the ground.”
Having “a diverse and healthy industry in the area,” he said, “is something we are excited about.”
With the mill up and running, Birtcher said, its owners, who maintain a “long-term” outlook on its operation, are “not concerned about this quarter’s earnings” as much as they are concerned about “having a good, healthy forest and business, 40 or 50 years out.”