By Lindsay R. Mohlere
Located on the eastside of Colorado’s Mystic San Luis Valley, adjacent to the 172,000-acre Trinchera Ranch, the Trinchera Blanca Sawmill is part of an ambitious and aggressive forest management plan that is a blueprint to aid forest restoration and wildlife habitat and improve fuels reduction.
More than just a working ranch (complete with tourist and sportsmen’s activities), Trinchera is a beacon for progressive forest management.
The ranch and mill are owned by noted conservationist and financier Louis Bacon, who purchased the property in 2007 from the family of Malcomb Forbes. Shortly thereafter, Bacon established a conservation easement that prevents development, and he gifted the easement to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Built in 2016, the mill is yet another part of the ranch’s comprehensive effort to save a forest severely impacted by bug infestations and wildfire. Together with forest scientists, conservationists, wildlife biologists, and loggers using the latest high-tech harvesting machines and eco-friendly techniques, Trinchera is setting the standard in forest management.
“The difference is that we’re a sawmill that is here to help fix a forest. It’s not a forest that’s here to serve a sawmill,” says Mike Zojonc, vice president of Blanca Forest Products Inc., explaining the mission of the Blanca Mill.
Sustainability in Board Feet
Since its inception and groundbreaking in 2016, with the first logs rolling into the mill in February 2017, Blanca Mill has strived to make the mill sustainable with the forest. “What the forest can produce, is what we’re trying to produce,” says Zojonc. And now, because of the devastating infestations of budworm and bark beetle, especially in the spruce stands, there is a sense of urgency to harvest. Large portions of the spruce come to the mill from stands killed by the infestations.
“Our main species is Engelmann spruce, and this is the one that is being attacked the most, at the highest rate. In fact, there are projections that within five years, there may not be a living spruce tree in Colorado,” adds Zojonc.
Other species from the ranch include Douglas fir, white fir, and Ponderosa, with some logs coming from contractors other than the mill’s sole harvesting contractor JT Timber Falling Inc.
“We get logs from other contractors,” says Zojonc. “We are getting some Ponderosa pine from a timber sale in New Mexico, and then we will buy logs off of other private ranches. And some logs off of the Rio Grande Forest Service. We also get lodge pole. Whenever lodge pole comes in, we put that in with the spruce. It’s stamped ESLP, Englemann spruce lodge pole pine. We’re grade-inspected and part of the WWPA [Western Wood Products Association].”
With more timber dying from beetle kill than is harvested, most of the wood brought to the mill is dead standing. Some timber is unusable.
“The Forest Service was trying to do the right thing. But they have so many thousands of acres of dead timber that’s been dead for too long. There’s no market for it. It’s been standing and dead for six, seven, eight years, and it’s got splits you can put your fingers through. It doesn’t make lumber,” Zonjonc explains.
“It goes back to the basis of the sawmill here. We’re here for the ranch. So that, you know, they [harvesting contractors] need to harvest that section that they are in. They’re going to do their best job to send us usable logs. We get the occasional or handful of logs that are not usable, but we understand why,” notes Zojonc, adding that they will cut segments out of the logs, even if they get only one board.
So far, annual production is around 24 million board feet per year.
Retooled for Efficiency
The mill currently runs two shifts and a 9-hour planer shift, processing nearly 1200 logs per shift. Considered a stud mill, Blanca’s primary products are 2X4s and 2X6s, 6 to 12 feet long. The byproducts are 1X4” and 1X6” boards.
The most significant change to the mill occurred just about a year after it opened. Dissatisfied with the mill’s performance, Zojonc and team installed a new Maxi Mill, which is reportedly meeting expectations.
With a goal of increased automation, the headrig has optimization and scanning, as does the board-edger. The USNR sticker-stacker is also automated. “From that point on, the sawmill requires manual decisions. We have a Valley trimmer, which is labor-intensive, and we have a pull chain,” said Tanner Abel, general manager of the mill.
Abel also noted that the mill’s planer is an older Stetson-Ross. “We recently upgraded the finishing and the trimmer. USNR put a new paddle fence in, with a mill track. Eye in the sky. We’ve had it online for a few weeks, and it’s working very well.”
Recent retooling also included two new 69-foot USNR dry kilns. One is a single-track and the other a double-track. The kilns are heated by a Hurst 20,000 pound-an-hour boiler and fired by sawdust and scrap from the mill, generating pressurized, 300-degree steam.
“We dry everything,” Abel said. “Predominantly we get dried beetle-killed spruce off the ranch. It’s dead standing. But we will mix in a handful of green logs that we’re getting from outside sources. It’s difficult when we mix the dead standing with green logs, but our guys do a really good job of equalizing and getting it the best we can get. We know it’s not going to be perfect.”
With the changes to the mill, both Zojonc and Abel agree that the new configuration is meeting expectations. “Our production has increased,” says Zojonc. “Our in-pile production has increased by one-third.”
“We are here primarily as a service to the forest. We don’t get the greatest logs in the world.” Zojonc notes that because of the dead and dying trees, their recoveries are not the greatest. “But we know we do produce a very high-quality product.” We’ve got a customer base that extends across the country. We ship product to Louisiana. We ship product up into Oregon, Idaho, California, New Mexico. We’re pretty much across the country if the product is in demand, and we take pride in that.”
The Challenge of a Rural Labor Pool
When construction started on 160 acres of sage brush outside the gate at Trinchera Ranch, not only was it the first step toward creating a model of progressive science to improve forest health, it also signaled the beginning of a sustainable solution for an ailing Costilla County workforce.
One of the original 17 Colorado counties created in 1861, Costilla County is also one of the poorest counties in the state. Home to roughly 3500 residents, the county had the state’s fifth-highest unemployment rate of nearly 6 percent.
The mill, now running two shifts, employs 70 people and is one of the county’s largest private employers. However, like most of the timber industry, finding employees can be difficult.
“We have the same struggles,” says Zojonc. “It’s just hard. Labor is one of the most difficult challenges that we have. We attribute it to being a small rural area. The labor pool is finite.”
To keep and attract employees, the mill offers complete employment packages with full benefits including medical, dental, vision, paid holidays, paid vacations after a year, and a 401K plan with a match. Zojonc says, “We have the best benefit package that we’re aware of in the entire San Luis Valley.
The mill has big plans for the future, according to Zojonc. “In five years, we would like to see it more automated. We would like to create [fewer] manual labor-intensive jobs. You know, what we tried to do is, not only to help the forest but to create a situation that offers family-wage employment for the people in the Valley. We’re trying to create a good thing for these folks, that they have a place to work and they can raise their families and grow their children and live here.”
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