March-April, 2002





Joseph Timber Co.

The Joseph Timber Co. mill yard, looking south.

by Tim Buckley

Strange bedfellows you might think - a small non-profit organization with environmental leanings - being wed to a traditional saw mill operation. But as they say: "If necessity is the mother of invention, then resourcefulness is the father." The evaporation of jobs and infrastructure in Oregon's northeast counties began many decades ago. Neither mining nor agriculture could support the number of settlers and, today, there are fewer people in Wallowa County then there were 80 years ago. 

The most recent employment crisis came on the heels of listing salmon as an endangered species. Timber sales went endangered, too, along with sawmills, timber support businesses, and community jobs. Unemployment rates reached 20 percent this past winter. Necessity prompted county officials and community leaders into action, dredging up all available resources to rescue sagging industries, especially those that could support higher wages. 

Wallowa Resources is the non-profit corporation started in 1997, in Enterprise, to tackle the economic adversity head on. After a thorough inventory of the best remaining forest jobs, their focus began with manufacturing. "Part of our mission is to protect and promote forest health while maintaining jobs, but it is also to broaden the understanding of the links between the forest and the community," said Nils Christoffersen, project manager of Wallowa Resources. 

"Nothing we found would have more immediate impact on community stability and forest health than helping the timber mill to stay open," Christoffersen added. "Our mill provides year-round jobs at above-average wages, and has been retooled to handle the smaller-diameter material that needs to come off our forests." 

Overview of the small timber value-added project at Joseph Timber. Logs will be kicked left of right of the conveyor, depending on their best purpose - either studs, flooring, or post and rail segments for decorative fencing.

Funded initially with a grant from the USDA Rural Communities Assistance program and assistance from Sustainable NW, Wallowa Resources quickly discovered that keeping the timber industry alive in northeast Oregon meant the following things: 

o Finding a reliable source of marketable timber. Much of the private lands there are owned or managed by Boise Cascade, and a majority of those resources are shipped to Boise's timber and pulp mills elsewhere; 

o Working with smaller, private landowners to realize more value from their timber, while also finding a market for products made from smaller logs;

o Promoting better forest management techniques, to maximize forest health and the reduction of catastrophic wildfires; 

o Helping Joseph Timber Company to establish a better marketplace for its products by broadening its product mix.

During most of 2000, Joseph Timber Company squeaked by, despite soft prices for dimensional lumber and the increased difficulty of finding timber. According to Dave Shriner, the company's recently retired general manager: "We processed 780,000 logs and produced 44 million feet of lumber in the past two years. 

The average diameter was 7.2 inches," he said. Over the years, Joseph Timber Company had invested many millions of dollars to modernize the mill around smaller logs. "We have about the best technology you can buy," Shriner said, "including Inovec scanning, positioning, and controls." In fact, the mill is equipped with Oregon-based Inovec's "LogMaster" and CantMaster" optimizers, which makes the most of each log's one pass through the multiple-head saws. Shriner said computerization, lasers and robotics take most of the decision-making away from operators. "We're getting to within a 1/1000 of an inch on both positioning and sawing," he said. 

Yard waste recycling machinery. Material is loaded at the left; conveyor belt takes it through the Trommel screen (big tube in center of photo) where the "fines" (sold for potting soil) drop out. Rocks exit out the back to the right, into a truck; larger woody material exits the other side, through a wet bath tank, and is later ground into mulch or hog fuel, and sold.

Other recent mill improvements include an upgraded boiler, whose new steam reduction valve increases consistent pressure and a steady rate of burn for the dry kilns. Regardless of upgrades and efficiencies, however, the mill shut down in October, 2000, idling 67 people simply because of dismal market conditions and scant log supply. "There have been no public timber sales in this county for three years," Shriner complained. For several years, Wallowa Resources had been using some of its grant funding to research the prospect of bringing "Smartwood" certification to interested private landowners as well as to the local mill. 

Smartwood is a designation for timber that has been harvested based on a management plan tied to healthy forests and sustainable logging practices. Vermont-based Smartwood has made two trips to the Joseph area; the Joseph mill is now Smartwood certified, as is at least one landowner. The Smartwood land audit and certification process can cost landowners between "twenty cents and several hundred dollars an acre, depending on the lot size," said Christoffersen. 

Lining up rough cut boards for re-saw in the Inovec CantMaster.

He tried a novel approach where smaller wood lot owners could get certification costs reduced through an "association" of owners. In the meantime, Wallowa Resources subsided the cost of land audit and certification - as well as helped landowners with the development of land management plans. They also worked on marketing - working with developers, builders, retailers and consumers - to increase demand for Smartwood products. When the mill reopened in May, it had a new profit center based on a log yard waste reduction idea hatched by a broad-based government, non-profit and industry study group. 

As part of the plan, Joseph Timber agreed to begin recycling 19 years worth of log yard residual. "We have between 90,000 and 100,000 cubic yards of stockpiled waste," said Shriner. "Frankly, it was amazing and gratifying to have the combined resources, energy and effort from the Forest Service, EPA, Oregon DEQ and Economic Development, working together with Wallowa Resources and us on a positive solution to a common problem," he added. The heart of the reclamation equipment is a Trommel screen and a wet bath tank. 

It separates the dirt and pulverized wood from rocks and larger chunks of wood, and deposits each onto its own pile. The "fines" are mixed with ash from the mill's boiler and sold to an Idaho company for potting soil. The "overs" are chipped up into mulch or hog fuel and sold for a variety of purposes. The reclaimed rock is used in road repairs. "The operation pays for itself," said Shriner, and he estimates the backlog of accumulated materials will be gone in about six years. 

What also helped the mill reopen was a small investment by Community Solutions, Inc. (CSI), the for-profit subsidiary of Wallowa Resources. The contribution helped Joseph Timber purchase new equipment, owned by CSI and leased to the mill. The mill has agreed, as part of the agreement, to have CSI as an equity partner in the business as well as a partner in management decisions at the mill. Since Shriner retired in August - after 23 years with the mill - CSI's president David Hockett has stepped in as interim general manager. 

The new star kicker assembly, part of the post and pole project nearing completion.

This year Wallowa Resources secured a National Fire Plan grant to purchase "Post and Pole" processing equipment which will be leased to Joseph Timber Company and integrated into their Chip and Saw system. "We're the only mill in the county able to make a value-added product with small diameter pulp logs," said Hockett. "Adding the post and pole equipment makes us unique in the Northwest." The project will also help landowners and managers, including the Forest Service, reduce the buildup of fuels associated with devastating wildfires in recent years, he added. Logs as small as 20 feet with a 3-inch diameter - too small for most mill purposes - will now be sorted for new uses. 

On one side of Joseph Timber's new log deck, the chip and saw system (Adco-West saw with Lindsay heads) will produce studs, 4x4's, and eventually vertical grain flooring. On the other side, the post and pole equipment will cut and shape the posts for use in decorative fencing - flat on top and pointed at the bottom, with mortise holes drilled for the 8 - 10 foot rails. 

Precision Sawmill Systems, Inc. of Superior, Montana, designed and manufactured the small log-processing center for Joseph Timber. It will include two accumulation log decks, a Morbark log peeler, Precision's Two Saw Trimmer, Mega Drill, Automatic Pointer Capper, and Double End Tenon machine. From other sources, Joseph Timber is adding a step feeder, WGBM scanner, and a star kicker.

Precison's part of the package cost about $150,000, including freight and manpower, according to Precision's Senior Project Manager, Michael McDonald. "Precision is the name of the game with very small logs," said Shriner. "A few thousandths of an inch makes the difference between a saleable stud at a 'standard or better' grade - as opposed to a downgraded stud that's essentially worthless." Creating new markets for the mill depends on a couple of things. First, Shriner and Hockett believe that the post and pole operation will provide for new customers in the west and southwest US, and that the products will be less expensive than Canadian exports of a similar nature - all things except transportation being equal. 

The second value added piece - the production and shipment of Smartwood certified lumber - depends on the number of landowners that sign onto the program, as well as how the concept is accepted by the consuming public. Christoffersen said he's optimistic that the mill and the landowners will both profit from the new ventures. But perhaps the most notable byproduct is the partnership itself. "I think other communities and mills should look at this model," Christoffersen advised. Without the partnership, Joseph Timber Company would most likely be closed. With the partnership, the mill has hired back more than 40 employees, with additional jobs pending the success of the post and pole operation. 

Besides a net gain for the economy and the community, Christoffersen said "we've been able to get past a traditional impasse between environmental groups, the industry and the communities. Everyone now believes that higher standards of forest management can translate directly into a healthier forest and a healthier forest industry," he concluded. 

The success of Joseph Timber was short lived. Since the writing of this article, the mill has been shut down or various reasons. We are, however, running this article, to commend all those taking creative and innovative stops to keep the timber industry alive in their communities. Although they may not all be successful, only by taking bold steps forward can we succeed.

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This page was last updated on Tuesday, September 28, 2004