April 2005 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal
Turning weeds into dollars
A unique Oregon operation is converting weed species juniper into valuable products and providing training and employment for workers with disabilities.
By Alan Froome
Turning a noxious weed tree species into dollars may sound like a challenging business plan, but a facility in southern Oregon is doing just that, making and selling wood products under the interesting brand name, Noah’s Choice.
The weed referred to is western juniper, which is usually classified as having zero value. But REACH Inc turns it into a variety of useful products including furniture, lumber, paneling and many more items. There is no shortage of juniper in the region—it has been estimated there is ten times more juniper today in eastern Oregon than 100 years ago.
REACH (Restoration, Education And Community Habilitation) Inc operates a wood products plant on a 20-acre site in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and is unique in many ways. In the beginning, it was conceived as a non-profit organization, a way to provide training, employment and rehabilitation for disabled workers. But it has also become a versatile wood products company in its own right. It is probably the only mill in North America that processes juniper almost exclusively. Yet another unique feature is that the mill is heated geo-thermally, using water pumped out of the ground from hot springs at 110 degrees F.
The harvesting of the trees is carried out in conjunction with another REACH project, the Ecosystem Workforce Training Program, which trains people in land and environment restoration. This often involves the removal of proliferating juniper from what was once grazing or range land and is now more like desert. Dennis Long, manufacturing director at REACH, doesn’t like to talk about it as logging as such, preferring to call it land restoration. He emphasizes that the juniper is removed in a responsible way and says they practise selective logging—after first doing an environmental assessment of the area. “Some of the oldest growth trees are often left standing to provide habitat for birds and animals.”
Long is an ex-Weyerhaeuser engineer, who started out at the Snoqualmie Falls, Washington mill. Nowadays he is often referred to as Mr Juniper and has been with the project from the very beginning. He quotes the lofty, but basic, philosophy behind the REACH idea: “Working to sustain people, communities and the earth.”
The folks at REACH love to tell the story about a local rancher who noticed a stream on his land had dried up. When the REACH Eco Rangers removed most of the juniper trees on the slope above the area, the water started flowing again. In explanation, Long says juniper trees have roots going out up to five times the diameter of the tree, and the long tap roots typically consume 50 gallons of water a day—which accounted for the rancher’s disappearing stream. “In our case the tree-huggers hug the loggers, not the trees,” Long adds.
Marc Kane, the executive director of REACH, says the US Forest Service first suggested REACH find ways to utilize juniper, the scourge of Oregon’s rangelands. They initially started out in a simple way, making shavings for animal bedding. The bedding found a ready market with quarter horse owners who like the pleasant smell of the shavings and its bug-repellent features. From this simple beginning, REACH branched out into other uses for the wood in solid or fibre form and are still finding more applications today.
Initial funding for the REACH plant was in the form of grants from a variety of Oregon state departments, which were matched by the local Jeld-Wen Foundation. In the following three years, the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Ford Family Foundation also contributed to the operating costs.
Today, however, REACH is almost self-sufficient; it relies on state grants for only eight per cent of its operating costs. Kane says they pay workers a fair wage and when the operation starts to turn a profit, the plan is to hire and train more workers with disabilities. Long estimates that the plant could be expanded from the 70 workers now employed to as many as 300 people in the existing 110,000 square foot building.
Compared to other species, western juniper is more like a hardwood than a softwood and a recent study by Oregon State University indicated that untreated juniper fence posts could last up to 35 years. This gave rise to another Noah’s Choice product. Because the trees are crooked with extreme taper, larger diameters are required to allow 4x4 full dimension square posts to be cut from the heart of the tree. This is the main reason REACH recently installed a new Hurdle scragg saw line, allowing them to cut bigger logs and produce wider boards.
REACH estimates that 40 per cent of the trees are recovered as solid wood products and 60 per cent as fibre. The lower grade lumber is used to make pallets and the higher grade used for appearance grade items like deck boards and tables. Since a mill upgrade and a recent home show display, the first orders have already been received for floor and wall paneling to expand the range of products.
Long emphasizes that despite all the new products, most of the logs are only good as a source of fibre and lumber production is secondary. A lot of the fibre is shipped to the Jeld-Wen company, a major customer and long time supporter of the REACH facility. Jeld-Wen processes the fibre through a digester, after which it is combined with resin and pressed into paneled door skins.
Jeld-Wen are themselves an interesting company. They started out in Klamath Falls in 1960 as a millwork shop with 15 employees. Today, the firm has grown to become one of the largest door and window companies in the world, with 20,000 employees.
REACH processes trees up to a maximum of 36-inch butt diameter and bucks them in multiples of up to four, nine-foot logs with its mobile merchandiser. It was initially envisaged that this machine and some of the other equipment at the mill would be moved to the various logging sites, but now all the trees are trucked to the REACH log yard for processing.
This past spring, the REACH organization completed a million dollar expansion at the sawmill, which enabled them to cut larger logs plus kiln dry and plane the lumber. It has taken six years to reach this level of capability in the plant and the improved mill now allows the operation to get into the lucrative flooring and paneling markets. This move recognizes that one of juniper’s best features (after it has been planed and sanded) is its striking colour and attractive grain.
The layout of the REACH plant is not the usual straight through sawmill flow plan, with conveyors and decks linking all the machine centres. This is because so many of the products made are labour intensive and require small teams of workers at different locations around the large building.
Forklifts are used to move lumber from place to place. The recent mill improvements included a mix of new and used equipment. The upgrade included the addition of a new Nyle dry kiln, the new Hurdle headrig, a used planer and a wide belt sander. After bucking and sorting in the mill yard, logs are now processed by one of three primary breakdown machines into cants, slabs or shavings.
The improved sawmill now comprises:
Long says he is very pleased with the new additions to the plant and plans to extend the building roof over the new Hurdle scragg saw and carriage, which he described as “excellent value for the money.” He points out that the Nyle company was also very helpful, and that the new kiln is to his knowledge the only one in the country drying juniper. It operates on a seven-day cycle.
Long plans to convert the kiln heating system to use the site’s free geothermal energy to provide base heat for drying in the near future. They have a 1,500-foot deep well on site to reach the hot water and a pump circulates it through radiators around the plant for heating.
From a production standpoint, REACH now turns out around 12,000 board feet a day of lumber and 18 bone dry tons of fibre. Following the mill upgrade, the first batch of flooring was processed by Mill Run Hardwood Floors of Surrey, BC and shipped back to REACH, before forwarding to a US flooring distributor. Mill Run turned rough sawn juniper boards into finished tongue and groove three-, four- and five-inch by 5/8-inch flooring.
A total of 180 different products are now made at the plant, many of them completely finished and sold through distributors.
There seems to be endless new uses for juniper. Recent orders have been received for the fibre for use in papermaking, and even the sawdust is now packaged for use as an industrial strength absorbent under the name of Super Sweep. Reach has found that a one cubic foot bag will absorb four gallons of liquid, much more than diatomite or clay products. The first orders for Super Sweep have now been shipped.
The enthusiasm of the REACH organization and its employees is infectious. And the concept of removing from the landscape what is to most people a worthless weed and turning it into a range of valuable wood products has become a great success. The concept of turning weeds into revenue has turned out to be a winner for both the employees and the forest.
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