Specialized sawmill deftly trims around the high cost of timber
Elma, Wash. — For Glen anderson, just "being here and running" is evidence of success in today's disastrous forest products industry. The Anderson mill here is an example of a business some analysts say has become an endangered species -- namely, the small, independent sawmill tied to high-cost timber from the national forests.
Elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest sawmills large and small are closing or severely curtailing production in the face of the national housing slump.
But Anderson believes he has developed a strategy for survival by specializing in cutting old-growth federal timber to foreign specifications, primarily for export.
Even though interest rates of 17 to 18 percent on home mortgages have slowed down residential housing construction, there usually is a market somewhere in the world for the clear, straight-grained lumber that comes from large trees. Most sawmills in the Northwest are geared to mass produce a few standard sizes for the United States housing market. And thus they suffer when housing starts to take a dive.
Anderson's modern, computerized mill in westerm Washington can cut an infinite variety of specialty items for dozens of different destinations. In the yard behind the mill are stacked piles of 3-by-3s bound for Morocco, 4-by-8 clears for Japan, railroad ties and door stock for the domestic market.
"We may get as many as 65 different product sizes from a single log," Anderson said.
Anderson said he learned many of his new cutting techniques from the Japanese. But unlike many of what he says are antiquated and inefficient Japanese mills, Anderson has the latest technology, including a computerized saw that can change from feet to meters at a flip of a switch.
Anderson mill opened in late 1980 in what many considered the worst time to open a new mill as record high interest rates choked off the residential construction that normally provides the biggest market for Western lumber mills. Softwood lumber production in the West fell to the lowest level in recent history in 1980, according to the Western Wood Products Association.
By most accounts, the situation in the forests is eveb more serious this year with little hope of an upward change. Among those most vulnerable are those that must obtain all of their timber from state and national forests.
Despite the slump in housing starts and the corresponding slump in lumber prices, there has been no decrease in stumpage prices.
But because of its small size, his mill should always be able to obtain enough timber even when things get tight, Anderson reasons.
And because of the sustained-yield logging requirements of the national forests, there should always be a source of old-growth logs, he said.
"In the long-run, this has to be the way to survive," Anderson said.