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There are a lot of people who say that timber’s no longer king in
Northeast Oregon. Try and tell that to the people who work at Boise
Cascade’s Elgin mill complex, and you might get an argument.
There, more than 300 workers stay busy turning out plywood and studs, helping feed a housing market that is, according to many reports, on the rebound.Mills all over the region have been idled in recent years, but at the Elgin plants the environment is noisy and fast-paced, and production is high. The people take a lot of pride in what they’re doing.
Plywood Plant Superintendent Craig Zollman likes it that the workforce is local, from the top on down.
“It’s a bunch of local guys running a pretty lucrative business and doing OK at it,” Zollman said as he showed some visitors around Friday.
Those visitors — about 15 local business and civic leaders in all — took part in a tour of Boise’s plywood plant and stud mill in Elgin, and the particleboard plant near Island City.
Tom Insko, manager of Boise’s Inland Region, said the purpose of the tour was to touch bases with the community.
Though manual labor is still required, computers play an important role in wood products production these days. Above Boise Cascade Inland Region Manager Tom Insko talks about high-tech methods of monitoring log size, moisture content and more.
“We wanted to provide community members with information about our business, and also develop a strong relationship with the community,” Insko said.
The day-long event opened with an informational session at the particleboard plant. Insko talked about where the Inland Region has been, and where he thinks it’s headed. It was a good news, bad news sort of discussion.
First the good: Business is picking up.
“We do see housing starts coming back and we do have some hopes for the future,” Insko said.
Insko recalled how the national housing market went from robust to bust between 2001 to 2006. Mills in the Inland Region, including
La Grande, Elgin, Island City and Kettle Falls, Wash., felt the pain. The La Grande sawmill failed to survive, closing in June 2009.
Production at the other facilities was cut back. The particleboard plant was hard hit and has yet to fully recover. Currently, it is running at about 50 percent of capacity, Insko said.
Now, one half of Boise’s problem — a lack of demand for product — looks to be healing itself, slowly but steadily.
But the other half — a shortage of logs to work with — remains thorny, Insko said.
He said Inland Region mills are going far afield for logs, transporting them back to the mills over long distances. The expense adds up quickly.
“We’re logging in the Mount Hood National Forest and bringing it 200 miles to Elgin or Pilot Rock,” he said. “That’s not a very good model, especially when diesel prices might be going to five dollars again.”
Currently, timber management company Forest Capital Partners is supplying about half the logs the Inland Region mills need.
Another 30 percent of the logs come from other private sources, 5 percent off state lands and 9 percent off federal lands.
Forest Capital has a 10-year contract to supply Boise Cascade with logs. When that contract runs out in 2014, Boise’s log supply problem may become acute.
Insko said the key to the procurement problem lies in in a better, more reliable supply of logs from the “Iron Triangle” of national forests in Northeast Oregon, which includes the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur national forests.
“The reason I point this out is, the federal forests can produce more,” he said.
He said that the wood products industry is green, sustainable and vital to the country.
“It’s renewable, sustainable full utilization of trees,” he said. “Nothing against windmills, but we’ve got to get past the perception that windmills are green and forest products are not.”
Following Insko’s talk, the group walked through the particleboard plant, where sawdust is turned into industrial and commercial grade particleboard.
They witnessed a highly technological process in which workers using computers to track raw material as it is screened, stored, dried, formed, trimmed, pressed, cooled and sanded.
“People tend to think about the wood product industry as non-technical, but it’s far from that,” Insko said.
From the particleboard plant, the tour proceeded to the Elgin complex. In a meeting at the headquarters building, Production Manager Greg Howard gave an operations overview, saying about 340 people currently work at Elgin.
Howard said about 200 people work in plywood, and another 140 in the stud mill. He said that while plywood runs basically 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the stud mill runs only one shift currently.
But that shift is getting longer, he added.
“We’re actually running more than eight hours now,” Howard said.
The next stop for tour participants was the log utilization center, the starting point for production of both plywood and studs.
There logs are peeled, cut into manageable lengths, then sent on through the production process. They emerge at the other end in a value-added form, plywood and studs milled, dried, stacked and bundled, ready to ship.
Howard said that these days, the plywood plant is shipping about 100 rail cars and 80 truckloads of product a month. The stud mill ships about four rail cars and 150 trucks a month.
Home Depot is a primary customer. For one thing, Boise Cascade studs are used extensively in Tuff Shed products sold by that company.
On the bus ride back to La Grande, Insko said all mills in the Inland Region, including the Pilot Rock mill acquired last year, employ about 860 people. Some 540 work in Northeast Oregon facilities.
He said he hopes the number increases.
“We’re significantly down from where we’d like to be,” he said.
Insko said his company may re-open the La Grande sawmill someday, but it depends on future conditions.
“We’re analyzing that, but we have no definite plans. We have to see an improvement in the market and log supply before we can operate it,” he said.