Republic sawmill's life extended - Company President Duane Vaagen makes winning bid in federal timber auction

John Craig
The Spokesman-Review Staff writer


REPUBLIC, Wash. -- The Vaagen Bros. sawmill here won a few more weeks of survival Wednesday when company President Duane Vaagen made the winning bid in a federal auction for timber that burned two summers ago on Mount Leona.

Vaagen said the purchase will feed his Republic mill for three to six weeks, and keep it going through the "spring break" in which logging and mill operations typically are curtailed by weather-related road restrictions. The mill had been scheduled to close later this month.

"We're happy with the outcome," Vaagen said. "However, the lumber market went down again yesterday."

He cited a $5 drop in the composite price for finished lumber, to $298 per thousand board feet.

By itself, the Mount Leona sale won't allow the immediate recall of any of the 55 workers Vaagen's Republic mill laid off on Feb. 7, nor will it guarantee the survival of the mill.

"We've got to see if everything works smoothly" before boosting the mill's remaining work force of 27 to 35 or 40, Vaagen said.

Wednesday's U.S. Forest Service sale was quickly arranged after this community of 975 people won national attention in December and January with a couple of rallies. The second rally drew U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt and Agriculture Department Undersecretary Mark Rey.

Nethercutt said the sale "may be of some help to laid-off Ferry County mill workers," but the Forest Service "must think ahead to future sales." The sale was opposed by several conservation groups, including the Republic-based Kettle Range Conservation Group.

Citing a variety of reasons, Forest Service officials pared the sale down from an original 2.8 million board feet on some 500 acres to 1.5 million board feet on 115 acres.

Approximately 6,000 acres burned on Mount Leona, 11 miles northeast of Republic, in August and September 2001.

Vaagen said he hopes the small supply of low-cost timber will keep the mill going long enough for federal officials to adopt new regulations making it easier for the Forest Service to sell burned timber before it loses its salvage value. He believes the Republic mill, operating on one shift instead of two, might sustain itself on timber sales designed to prevent forest fires by removing dead trees and other excess "fuel."

So Vaagen knows he must make a good impression. He said he plans to solicit daily feedback from Forest Service officials throughout the Mount Leona logging operation to make sure environmental concerns are being addressed.

Vaagen had to outbid Oroville logger Tom Acord for the 1.5 million board-foot salvage sale, but it didn't take long.

Forest Service timber sales sometimes last hours as nail-biting bidders wait most of the allotted 60 seconds for new bids before upping the ante a few cents. In this case, though, it was all over in 10 minutes.

The sale started with written bids from Colville-based Vaagen Bros. and Acord's Double A Logging Co. Vaagen bid the minimum $3.99 per hundred cubic feet of timber, while Acord offered $4.60. Vaagen countered with an oral bid of $4.65, and Acord remained silent while his minute to respond ticked away.

Acord said afterward that he feared he wouldn't be able to remove all the timber before this year's March 15 deadline, intended to protect the forest by ensuring the logging occurs on frozen ground. The timber's value already is limited, and would be much lower if not removed before next winter, Acord said.

Vaagen said he has the same concerns, and will move quickly to cut the timber before March 15. He speculated that, even if all goes well, the $14,112 purchase will produce less than 1 million board feet of usable timber, not the promised 1.5 million.

Except for trees that are to be left for wildlife habitat and environmental purposes, Vaagen Bros. is required to remove even unmarketable trees to satisfy the Forest Service's goal of preventing forest fires. The Forest Service will offer the unmarketable logs as posts and firewood, and will burn whatever can't be put to use.

Republic District Ranger Carol Boyd said her staff is considering another sale of burned Mount Leona timber this summer, but no other fire-prevention salvage sale is likely this year.

Meanwhile, she said the Colville National Forest will offer slightly more than 4 million board feet of green timber in the Swan Lake area, about eight miles southwest of Republic in mid- to late April.

The last sale of green timber in the Republic Ranger District, the Lone Deer sale near Curlew two years ago, fetched $74.14 per hundred cubic feet. But Boyd noted that the buyer, Boise Cascade, has yet to cut any of the timber, apparently waiting for more favorable market conditions.

Vaagen said lack of supply from national forests is hurting U.S. sawmills by driving up timber prices, while heavy cutting in British Columbia is driving down prices for finished lumber to unprofitable levels. He said he hopes multinational lobbying efforts under way this week in Washington, D.C., will produce a compromise, but he isn't optimistic.

"This game was about who was going to be the last one standing, but everybody is on their knees now," Vaagen said.


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