Small trees seed big mill… in Arizona

A new report from an Oregon consultant is bringing new hope to the Greater Flagstaff
Forest Partnership in its efforts to develop a viable market for small-diameter wood.

The report, authored by Corvallis-based Mater Engineering, suggests that with the
right technology, funding and proper planning by the U.S. Forest Service, northern
Arizona could be home to a new timber industry focusing on the spindly trees choking
the area’s forests.

Sun Staff Reporter

That’s an important piece to the puzzle of forest management, since a viable industry
would make it profitable to clear the doghair thickets blamed for catastrophic
wildfires and a degeneration in the health of the nation’s forests.

The priciest of tasks is developing the technology.

A key to making the industry work is installing a state-of-the-art mill designed to
handle logs as small as 5 inches in diameter.

Such a mill could cost between $10 million and $15 million to build, said Catherine
Mater, vice president of Mater engineering.

Mater Engineering and the Partnership are beginning to evaluate potential sites for the
mill, and the Partnership received federal grant to help pay for the studies, said Brian
Cottam, coordinator for the Partnership.

"Our grant was specifically to do a small-diameter-mill follow-up and site
assessment," Cottam said. "We’ll start in early September."

Cottam said some of the preliminary work has been done and the first potential
communities identified for the sawmill are Eager, Williams and Winslow.

Flagstaff was not among the early favorites because the small wood industry isn’t as
developed here as in other communities.

"In order to efficiently use small wood, we are looking for locations where there are
industry clusters already beginning," Cottam said.

However, Mater said the three communities are by no means finalists.

"We haven’t made any predetermination of where the mill should occur," she said.

Cottam added that the Partnership is continuing to work with the city and the Greater
Flagstaff Economic Council to foster small wood

markets in Flagstaff, but other communities are "one step ahead."

But getting a sawmill built also relies on a predictable supply of wood.

One of the first tasks for northern Arizona, according to the report, is to work to
provide a coordinated supply of wood, Cottam said.

"We’re trying to stay away from the word ‘guarantee,’ because it is impossible to
guarantee a supply," Cottam said. "But there are other ways to provide these types of
assurances to the industry without gutting environmental laws."

One way is to have a farsighted plan by the Forest Service detailing how much timber
will be available over the next few years.

Mater said the forests in northern Arizona have taken steps to do just that by outlining
what will be available in timber sales through 2006.

"We’re beginning to see the Forest Service respond," Mater said. "We’re not looking
for an increase in the production, but a level, coordinated supply."

Mater said the Forest Service has calculated that about 65 million board feet per year
will be harvested out the Coconino, Kaibab and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests
over the next four to six years.

"About half of that will be in the small-diameter logs that are about 5 to 9 inches," she

The report also illustrates how the supply will be used.

Some of the test results suggested smaller trees could be cut into regular two-by-four
boards as well as boards to be used in reinforced lumber. Wood chips and bark were
also tested in a composite process for making cabinet doors and other decorative
items, with positive results, among other tests.

"We’re finding we can do more with this wood than we originally thought," Cottam

He added that with such positive test results some investors are already expressing
interest in northern Arizona’s ponderosa pine.

"There is investor interest," he said. "I just think we’re really close. There are issues
with funding, public will and supply, but we’re really close to solving all of those."

He continued: "I think we’re really close to cracking the utilization nut."

Jeff Tucker can be reached at [email protected] or by calling 556-2250.

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