Republic mill needs timber to stay open - Operation hopes to hold on until possible July sale of Mount Leona timber

John Craig
The Spokesman-Review Staff writer

REPUBLIC, Wash. _ Vaagen Bros. officials are again scrambling for affordable timber to avoid closing their sawmill here.

Vice President Bob Heater said the mill has used up a million board feet of logs from a special Forest Service salvage sale last month.

Heater said the mill continues to operate with logs that were held in reserve last month when the mill was scheduled to close, and with 650,000 board feet of timber recently purchased from the Colville Confederated Tribes.

More will be needed if the mill is to hang on until July, when the Forest Service may sell timber from Mount Leona to prevent another fire such as the one that burned 6,000 acres in August and September 2001.

"We're just buying time right now," Heater said.

Plant officials said the mill, which employed about 90 last fall, was operating Wednesday with one shift of 31 workers -- up five from last month, when 55 were laid off.

"We're going to continue to operate at this restricted level," Heater said. "Hopefully, something will break loose. All our planning right now continues to be very short-term."

But Heater said it would take "something really dramatic" to restore the mill to last year's two-shift employment level.

Asked whether the mill can continue indefinitely at its current level, Heater said, "No, that sounds optimistic to me."

Capable of sawing 100 million board feet of timber a year, the mill's production rate now is about one-fifth of its capacity.

"At those kind of production rates, we'd be hard-pressed to cover our fixed costs," Heater said.

He said last month's hastily arranged sale of 1.5 million board feet of burned timber from Mount Leona worked well, although it actually produced only about 1 million board feet of good timber.

Fir and larch from the sale was good, but most of the "white wood" -- including lodgepole pine and mountain hemlock -- was in poor condition. The badly cracked white wood will produce only "bottom-of-the-barrel" utility grade lumber, but Heater said the company has been able to sell the fir and larch at a profit.

Kelvin Davis, timber management assistant for the Republic Ranger District, said Forest Service officials also were pleased with the Mount Leona salvage sale.

"They met all the requirements and guidelines and time frames," Davis said of the Vaagen logging operation.

The sale, designed to reduce fire danger, required Vaagen to remove some trees that had no commercial value.

A second Mount Leona sale that might be offered in July would come with the same strings.

In fact, Davis said he's not sure the sale will include enough merchantable timber to make it attractive to sawmill operators.

He agreed with Heater that the scorched timber on Mount Leona, 11 miles northeast of Republic, will lose its commercial value if not harvested this year.

Heater said he wishes the Forest Service would take a page from the Colville Confederated Tribes' book on timber management.

"They practice good stewardship," Heater said.

"They had a 75,000-acre fire the same year as the Mount Leona fire and, by May the following year, they had it salvaged and were back in replanting."

He said he appreciates efforts by Republic residents and federal officials to try to save the Republic mill, "but we just have to see more volume. Resource costs have to come down."

If the United States can't curtail Canadian lumber imports -- up nearly 8 percent last year despite a 27 percent tariff -- or at least salvage burned and diseased timber as aggressively as the Canadians, "we're going to continue to export jobs," Heater said.

He said Vaagen Bros. is interested in, but not optimistic about, another fire-prevention sale planned late next month in the Okanogan National Forest.

Tonasket District Ranger Mark Morris said officials are considering offering slightly more than 8 million board feet in an area about 25 miles northeast of Omak, where a lightning fire burned 2,800 acres in July 2001.

The fire was three miles from the Aeneas Valley, where at least 100 homes were threatened, Morris said.

The problem with the so-called Bailey sale is that the Forest Service is planning to require about 60 percent of the timber to be removed by helicopter because of concerns about soil damage, Heater said.

"If it's really good wood, you can justify it," he said.

"But the stumpage (price) has to be low."

Heater said the Mount Leona sale cost Vaagen Bros. about $290 per thousand board feet, including logging and delivery costs.

If helicopter costs raise delivered prices to $400 or more, the Bailey timber would not be affordable, he said.

Morris said Forest Service officials think the Bailey sale may be commercially attractive because of a preponderance of relatively large trees.

He said 60 percent of the timber to be sold is 16 to 45 inches in diameter.



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