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Traveling Mill Finds a Home
Vaagen Brothers Lumber
By Barbara Coyner
It might as well have been an ad on one of those online dating sites: “Portable sawmill seeks timber town looking for work.” The two parties got together in Eagar, Ariz., on May 29, 2013 for their official announcement, calling the new partnership Four Corners Forest Products.
As 100 people attended the ribbon cutting on the new venture, local logging contractor Dwayne Walker pointed out the significance of the date. “This is the two-year anniversary of the Wallow Fire,” he said of the monster fire in 2011 that burned over 500,000 acres, making it the largest wildfire in Arizona history. “I wanted people to remember what happened here.”
Big Fire Leads to Stewardship Project
Actually a lot has happened in this area of eastern Arizona. First, there was the decline of the local forest industry, then the buildup of forest fuels, and then the powerful Rodeo-Chediski blaze, just over ten years ago. During the summer of 2002, two fires — the Rodeo, set June 18 by an unemployed firefighter, and the Chediski, set June 20 by a stranded motorist signaling for help — merged into a monster blaze that burned for 60 days, expanding into what at the time was the largest wildfire on record in Arizona. Rodeo-Chediski ultimately consumed more than 468,000 acres.
It was then that Walker decided to get active, with the squeaky wheel approach finally culminating in the White Mountain Stewardship Project, the first large-scale 10-year stewardship project in the nation. It focused on forest
Local pellet manufacturer Rob Davis, of Forest Energy Enterprises, joined with Walker in the efforts, forming a business partnership called Future Forest LLC. Years before the Wallow fire hit, Walker and Davis were already showing the Forest Service their success with the stewardship project.
Opportunity for Portable Mill
Meanwhile, in Colville, Wash., Duane Vaagen of Vaagen Brothers Lumber, was taking a huge chance, buying a portable single-pass HewSaw R200 SE. Vaagen and his two sons, Russ and Kurtis, saw opportunity in bringing the portable sawmill to a town that might not want to build a permanent mill. The highly productive mobile sawmill they bought is no lightweight portable mill that hitches up to a pickup truck.
The unit requires two to three trailer loads, and a heavier axle situation. It doesn’t pack up in a day, but when it arrives at its destination, it boasts enough capacity to process some 8,000 to 9,000 acres of timber per year. Duane figured any proposed site had to have a three to six-month supply of wood to make the project worthwhile.
“I was after Duane for years about that mill,” says Walker, who has since forged a lasting friendship with the Vaagen family, and works often with Kurtis, the manager at the new Four Corners enterprise. “Duane said he had to have so many acres before he’d move it.”
With 90 percent bug kill in the area’s Ponderosa pine forests, and some 700 loads of fire-damaged logs already waiting to be processed, Walker and Davis, as well as other local backers, knew they could meet Vaagen’s stipulations. The federal stewardship contract has a guaranteed amount of harvest for Walker Brothers Logging and other contractors in the area. It would also help Davis with wood pellet production.
The Benefits of Being Portable
Walker sees a definite advantage in having the portability of the sawmill, although the whole operation occupies an old milling area with some amount of permanent infrastructure in place.
“It came in on wheels and it can go out on wheels,” Walker says. “The wheels are still on it. The Forest Service knows it’s here, but the big issue for us all is, ‘Can we keep it fed?’ There’s a bigger picture with all this, and with the 4FRI project, there is pressure on Washington D.C.” The 4FRI is the four-forest initiative cobbled together at the federal level to address forest health on the Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves, and Tonto National Forests, along the Mogollon Rim in northern Arizona (see www.4fri.org for more information).
The portable HewSaw previously did a demonstration stint at the Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wisc., and then got a trial run in Eagar for three months before the official ribbon cutting in May. Vaagens, Walker and others were encouraged by what they’d seen. The mill has been operating about three days a week, moving full-time where it can process 20 truckloads of logs a day.
The business currently has 10 employees and will hire another five soon. Logs will be sourced from a 75-mile radius.
“When it gets going at full capacity, that little mill is going to scream,” says Walker, who has watched all aspects of the mill setup. He notes that the arrival of the impressive loads of milling equipment was not widely announced, yet there was quite a buzz around town as the activities ramped up. Setting up the mill took some time and fine-tuning.
“At first the debarker had a kicker [that threw logs off course], and once we got the HewSaw people down here, we decided why not go straight through instead, so we rolled the debarker over, and now that thing is going to really put out. They got an automatic stacker at auction and that should really improve production, so it should be cranking out 15 logs per minute,” says Walker.
Keeping Tabs on Eagar
With the milling industry in eastern Arizona basically in a funk for the last 30 years, federal and state officials are carefully assessing the experiment at Eagar.
The need for thinning the dense forests continues, but without mills and other infrastructure, the process has slowed to a crawl. With two major fires over the last decade, however, the public is more aware that something needs to be done. Around towns like Eagar and Springerville, tourism is picking up again, bringing people closer to the reality of forest health issues. As for the local economy, it is now obvious that tourism jobs alone won’t keep such small communities afloat. Given the expansion of timber activities, and the newfound acceptance, Walker sees that the local economy might get an infusion of up to 300 new jobs. Rob Davis’s pellet enterprise shows the value-added aspects, and Walker keeps his payroll steady as the largest logging contractor in the region.
As Duane Vaagen noted at the start of his new portable sawmill venture in 2007,
“Fixed sawmills are like frame houses. If you don’t like the neighborhood, you’re stuck. But portable sawmills are like travel trailers, and there’s a new opportunity around every bend.”
Walker and Davis agree, as does Craig Rawlings, of the Forest Business Network. Rawlings, who has watched the project steadily unfold, points to the power of the right people working together, noting, “Part of the success of this venture has been the relationships between Vaagens, the Small Log Conference, Smallwood, the Forest Service, and Walker and Davis. Those relationships just kept building and building, making a lot of this possible.”
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