Are mills key, or just part of the long chain of adaptations that will be needed?
"Refitting mills to handle small diameter is the coming thing across the West," according to Ray Wrobley, SEC, Sedona , Arizona . "But the trend appears to be intermittent, depending on the region and on the interest of people there." In the Pacific Northwest , which is considered the place for big diameter trees, many mills won't take a log smaller than 22 inches on the large end. There might still be specialty mills, but only a few. In Colorado , some think it takes too much to convert a large timber sawmill into a small diameter utilization mill.
"You might as well start from scratch," said Wrobley aid. "Everyone is retooling to small diameter. There still is motivation to invest."
The problem in order to compete is mills have to be in high production, Wrobley said, which works in the Northwest and British Columbia , where huge volumes per acre are common. In contrast, a small company in Montrose , Colorado , Intermountain, which can handle 100 million board feet a year, has to reach out across the country to stay in business.
Like mills, loggers are geared towards small logs now. At Vallecito Reservoir near Durango , the logger doing salvage after the 74,000-acre Missionary Ridge fire had to sell his big logs in the field, because they were too big for him to handle.
Aside from the cost and the demand to produce high volumes of products, some are saying that it makes sense to separate the small-diameter wood processing activity from the saw-timber mill activity. This is similar to "starting from scratch, but not only because of the cost. It just makes more utilization sense to some."
Nevertheless, mill conversion became an important focus of some FCSFP partners who saw a need and had a desire to fill it. In Reserve, NM, the Catron County Citizens Group utilized remnants of old defunct mill, along with a new saw, and rebuilt a much smaller mill on the same site in order to process restoration timber from upcoming logging out of the Sheep Basin Restoration Unit; a community and economic development process that has taken nearly 10 years.
The Doyons in Southfork , Colorado symbolize a notable milestone in the mill conversion story. Their background is in logging as contractors, but they were losing jobs as mills shut down. So they decided to take the risk and purchase and reassemble a La Sal, Utah mill and add milling to their logging portfolio. Their story is quite dramatic in that it shows a dedication to community-based forestry and to keeping their business, which is really their lifestyle, going. Cassandra Doyon even testified to a congressional subcommittee about the subject (Doyon 2003). Her statements touch on several themes crucial to community-based forestry: the need for restoration forestry and a supporting industry, bidding for restoration projects (and needed training), costs of projects versus US Forest Service selection criteria, USFS confusing and conflicting policies and rules, foreign competition, OSHA regulations and safety training, forest and wood products infrastructure, landscape-scale restoration harvesting, and rural community assistance (ibid.).
The significance of the rather recent focus on mill conversions has to do with the fact that so many, many mills have closed down over the last two to three decades, and suddenly new mills are popping up; in Catron, near Trinidad , Colorado and Raton , New Mexico and in Southfork , Colorado . Whether or not this focus is a sign of renewed vigor, or fresh indication of potential, is not so clear; however, it testifies to the entrepreneurial momentum that seems to exist and to the desire of people to recreate an industry in response to the need to treat forests and to the incentives to do so.
"The wood products industry in the western United States lacks the ability to carry out large-scale restoration projects. The infrastructure to process small-diameter and underutilized trees generally does not exist, or is economically infeasible given low product values. In many regions, the lack of a consistent material supply from public lands hinders contractors' ability to invest in the necessary equipment."