Hard at work

Working at Montrose Forest Products, Carlos Beltran, left, and Austin Sabados grade lumber on April 23.

With the surety of supply lined up, Montrose Forest Products is moving forward with a significant mill expansion.

“Altogether, it will be northward of an $18 million investment,” Mike Kusar, the sawmill’s general manager, said April 23.

The mill and its parent company, Neiman Enterprises, are building a greenfield planer mill to replace the existing planer mill, installing a new gang saw in the sawmill, and constructing a 60,000 square-foot building for the new planer mill, which replaces a planer plant dating from the 1950s.

“We’ll be going from a jalopy to a Cadillac in a hurry,” Kusar said.

The new, specialized equipment is expected to arrive next spring. The company will likely also add a moulder operation on the heels of the new planer mill, Kusar said.

The hefty investment comes after a year of planning and negotiation with the San Juan National Forest to cut ponderosa pine, as well as negotiations with Dolores, Montezuma and Archuleta counties for road access.

“The main reason for the investment is to allow us to cut a new species and new product,” Kusar said.

The mill plans to cut 1-by-6 and 1-by-8 pieces. Currently, mill cuts 2-by-4 and 2-by-6 spruce and lodgepole pine for studs.

The ponderosa can be used for flooring, beaded ceiling, paneling, moulding and wainscoting, which opens up even more markets.

“It will be a whole new product, a whole new market. The reason is to give the mill longevity with the new species, once all this beetle-kill (timber) has run its course and is no longer available to us,” Kusar said.

The San Juan National Forest is making increased volumes of ponderosa available to Montrose Forest Products, said Norm Birtcher, the company’s resource forester. The Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National forests will also, in out-years, make some available, he said.

The present supply of spruce and lodgepole pine is thought to be enough to feed the mill for four or five years. With the ponderosa coming in, the mill’s life will be least 20 years, and, theoretically, indefinite, Birtcher said.

“Timber is a renewable resource at that scale. Mill operations could continue indefinitely, provided the Forest Service continues to sell the timber. We would be cutting significantly less than what is growing on the National Forest every year,” he said.

The new arrangement for ponderosa will give the mill longevity Birtcher said, concurring with Kusar, who stressed Montrose Forest Products will continue cutting spruce and lodgepole for studs.

“What we’ve been doing now, we’ll do part of the time. This will just expand what we’re able to do,” said Kusar.

“The exciting part is the longevity it will give to the mill for all of us who work here,” he later said.

The sawmill employs about 100 people directly and about that same number of contractors, loggers and truckers. Kusar and Birtcher expect those numbers to basically hold steady.

Discussions with the Forest Service began in earnest about a year ago. As part of preparatory work, Montrose Forest Products looked at competitors running similar operations with different versions of the equipment now being purchased. The company also sent 10 test loads of the San Juan’s ponderosa to Neiman’s mill in South Dakota and pulled together cost data.

The arrangement also benefits the Forest Service, Birtcher said. The San Juan National Forest has had problems with the round-headed pine beetle and is increasingly worried about wildfire in ponderosa stands, he said.

“That gave them impetus to manage them. With their assurance they would have consistent, long-term supply, it gave us the ability to go ahead and make the capital investments here,” Birtcher said.

Harvesting the ponderosa will also help protect the watershed from McPhee Reservoir (Montezuma County), he said.

“Agriculture is the lifeblood of Southwestern Colorado. A catastrophic wildfire there would be disastrous for the economy,” Birtcher said, adding that properly managed timber-cutting also helps critical wildlife habitat and serves to protect tourism in the state.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist and the senior writer for the Montrose Daily Press. Follow her on Twitter @kathMDP.

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