May June, 2003






The Yakama Nation Takes Advantage of Technology and Trends

By Barbara Coyner

Build a new state-of-the-art sawmill, fuel it with a steady supply of logs, then furnish good jobs to the local workforce. While western timber workers have marinated for years in the bad news of mill closures and dwindling log supplies, the Yakama Nation has broken out of the mold, constructing not just one new mill, but two. The Washington-based tribe shoots for 200 million board feet of value-added, high quality lumber annually off its 300,000 acres of designated commercial timberlands.

Itís also providing 250 jobs to an area struggling with chronic unemployment. "What theyíve done is marry modernization with the ability to provide jobs," says Gary Edwards, Yakama Forest Productís mill superintendent. "These mills were built to take advantage of the resource and provide jobs for the tribe, and 92 percent of the millís workers are tribal members. Itís a huge contribution to an area with high unemployment. One of the tribeís stated missions is to take advantage of the resources and people are one of the resources. Itís one thing to say it, but another thing to do it. But theyíre doing it here."

Acting as visionaries, Yakama tribal leaders hope to create a system that doesnít merely sell logs to others, but actually builds up value-added facilities that benefit the community. Step one in the tribal councilís ambitious plan created a log-sorting yard. Proceeds from that built the smalldiameter mill, which cut its first lumber in 1998. Eventually that operationís success spawned seed money for the next venture, a new large log mill, which opened in July 2002. The big-ticket items represent a combined investment of $50 million.

Mill superintendent Gary Edwards stands by the new Nicholson A8 debarker. The A8 made its debut at the Yakama Forest Products large log mill at White Swan,Washington.

Mills Big and Small
"We built the large log mill to take advantage of all the large logs available off Yakama lands," says Edwards of the privately owned timberlands, which have never been clear-cut. "We also get all the small-diameter timber off our own lands, which run from here to the base of Mount Adams. We run entirely on sustained yield, and with 120 to 140 million board feet produced annually, the land could be logged forever." The 90-acre double mill site, 125 miles east of Seattle, bustles with activity.

In less than a decade, the Yakama Nation has catapulted from a $3 million a year log seller to an economic mover and shaker with an annual payroll of over $7 million. Behind the employment success story, however, is a technological strategy that balances human labor with production capabilities, keeping lumber rolling out to buyers in over 40 states. Edwards takes obvious pride in the new 120,000 square-foot large log mill.

The facility, complete with a mezzanine for offices, handles 70 percent of the harvest, cutting logs from 12 to 44 inches in diameter, in lengths up to 20 feet. Edwards singles out the Comact CETEC 7-foot single-cut head rig band mill, along with the Comact CETEC 6- foot tri-band horizontal re-saw, as the millís basic workhorses. Because the mill was built as a Comact turnkey operation, the Canadian-manufacturerís designs make up much of the equipment roster (Hi-Tech Comact is based in Arkansas and works cooperatively with Comact in Canada). "We had plenty of meetings with people on the ground and a team from our small-diameter mill helped design the new mill," Edwards explains, reserving his highest praise for mill manager Tim Lockey. "Tim knows how to make a sawmill run. Heís a great listener and he empowers people and gives them the tools to do the job."

The Comact technical crew also rates an A-plus for fine-tuning the whole mill, staying around to troubleshoot until production ran smoothly, Edwards says.

The flare reducer situated next to the Nicholson debarker in the small-diameter mill.

Eliminating Fiber Damage
Like the small-diameter mill, the new large log mill sports Nicholson debarking equipment. The follow-up purchase represented a vote of trust, according to Ernie Howard, Nicholsonís North American sales manager based in Seattle. "We had a quick, successful start-up and it was very exciting to us that the Yakama Nation was the first to use our newest product, the A8."

Howard describes the powerful A8 debarker as user-friendly, which is critical because much of the tribal workforce came on board with little or no sawmill experience. "The A8 is very easy to maintain and was designed with the input of users as an ongoing evolution of its predecessor, the A7, and before that, the A5.

The A8ís biggest claim to fame is that itís fast and runs at higher speeds than other ring debarkers. Itís excellent at handling a wide range of diameters and can apply the right amount of pressure for the diameter being run through. I realize the debarker isnít the most exciting piece of equipment in the mill, but itís important to have clean bark removal without fiber damage. If you remove too much of the wood or damage it, you can have troubles further down the production line."

Howard and Edwards both agree that the A8 is a hot rod running at a fraction of its capacity (it can process up to 550 feet per minute and is 33 percent faster than previously possible with the 27-inch ring size). But thatís okay, according to Edwards, because the mill has expansion plans. "We havenít run the A8 fast and its capacity is way more than weíve used," Edwards says. "We bought this piece of equipment with expansion in mind, when we start running pine more. It debarks pine with ease and the capabilities will keep up with us well into the future."

Aside from speed and ability to deal with larger diameters, the A8 can easily process mixed log types and log end orientations at high speed without sorting. The enclosed log path also corrals crooked wood, and the knife arms boast a long life and easy replacement. Edwards adds that Nicholson furnishes the kind of tech support the mill needs. With the large log mill up and running, Edwards and Lockey spend time bouncing between it and the smalldiameter facility across the road.

Edwards is no stranger to small-diameter technology, having worked at Longview Fibreís HewSaw operation in Leavenworth. "In small-diameter, the main focus is feet-per-minute because speed is the only way you can make it. You have to run fast to make a profit." The small-diameter side processes logs from 5 to 11 inches in diameter with a HewSaw R200SE, and produces 2x4, 2x6 and 2x8 lumber.

Another load of small-diameter wood is fed into the Yakama Forest Products small-diameter mill.

Maximizing Production
As is the case with the large log mill, the small-diameter enterprise balances between modern equipment and a need to have jobs. While some tasks are easily mechanized, others defer to muscle power. Yet in total, the whole approach works well, according to Edwards. In fact, the combined mills hold something of a production record, with the three shifts turning out one million board feet in one day. "Tim just laughed and said we were almost as good as a small Canadian mill," Edwards adds as a postscript, emphasizing the fact that Canada is well known for its mega-mills.

With Yakama foresters deliberately restoring their forests to pre-European settlement conditions, the five-year harvest forecast is expected to change to 50 percent Ponderosa pine, 30 percent Douglas fir and 20 percent Grand fir (presently the mix is 20 percent Ponderosa, 30 percent Douglas fir, 10 percent Lodgepole and 40 percent Grand fir).

As Yakama Forest Products General Manager Chris Ketchum explains, the high-grade pine logs require a gentler approach to manufacturing, which means processing techniques will have to put on the brakes a bit. "Our machines represent advanced technology with computer aids that enable operators to quickly shift from a high speed fir environment to a slower grade recovery program when cutting pine," he adds.

The "more pine, less fir" forecast enables the tribe and its management staff to dream of an even better future, adding more higher value shop grade pine lumber into its products portfolio. Thereís also an interest in a laminated beam plant or perhaps a manufactured housing operation.

With only half of its 650,000 acres of forestlands in the commercial loop, and that land functioning in sustained yield mode, the Yakama Nation now finances several of its other enterprises with its profits. And it does it all with a super-modern milling situation that still allows for a 30 percent bigger workforce than most mills. Talk about a dream sheet.


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