Pacific Northwest sawmills get some uplifting news

2014-06-13 Ashley Bach

Sawmills are an integral part of their local communities. In many cases, employees have worked there for decades, with different generations of the same families taking jobs at the local mill. The mills are also an important driver of the critical manufacturing sector in the Pacific Northwest, even while high-tech companies often get the headlines.

Which is why it's so heartwarming to hear news of a potential new sawmill opening in Washington and a longtime sawmill reopening in Oregon.

Sierra Pacific Industries, based in Northern California, is the second-largest lumber producer in the country, with 1.9 million acres of timberland in Washington and California. In Washington, the company already has mills in Aberdeen, on the coast; in Burlington, north of Seattle; and Centralia, about halfway between Seattle and Portland.

Now the company could be coming to the Tacoma area.  

Sierra Pacific is looking to build a sawmill in Frederickson, an industrial area in south Pierce County. The site, near Ikea and Whirlpool distribution warehouses, could be as large as 270 acres and employ as many as 200 people.

Local leaders understand how big the news could be, not just for the community but for the state's timber industry.

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy has designated the sawmill as an “executive priority project.” The economic development department has appointed a county economic development official to be point man to help Sierra Pacific through whatever permitting and infrastructure issues it encounters.

...The potential sawmill site sits adjacent to a Tacoma Rail line. The municipally owned short-line railroad could handle finished products produced by the mill for regional and national distribution.

If Sierra Pacific decides to build the mill, the company would be its own builder. The privately held company, said the company spokesman, even builds its own sawmill machinery to equip its plants.

In addition to producing lumber for home buildings, the mill also would produce electricity for sale to power companies and for use in the plant. Mill wastes would be used to power the boilers that produce the power.

Pawlicki said the company would get its trees from Department of Natural Resources land and from privately held land in the area.

Down in Oregon, the story of the Rough & Ready sawmill looked like it was going to have a sad ending. The facility was the last remaining sawmill in Southwest Oregon's Josephine County, and we wrote about its apparent demise a year ago. What was particularly frustrating about the closure is Rough & Ready had plenty of customers and demand and 90 years of business behind it, but it couldn't get enough timber from the nearby forests to survive.

Miraculously, the sawmill is back. Thanks to a $1 million loan from the state agency Business Oregon and $4 million in state and federal tax credits, the mill's owners are upgrading the facility to handle small logs, some as small as 6 inches in diameter.

The mill is returning to full operations in July and in the process of hiring 66 employees after laying off its 87-person workforce last year. Many of the people hired this year are former Rough & Ready employees.

(Lonnie) Rollins, a 26-year veteran at the mill, was at the unemployment office in January when (sawmill owner) Link Phillippi called and asked him to come back to work. He was getting ready to learn diesel mechanics at Rogue Community College.

“I said, ‘In a heartbeat,’ ” Rollins said. “Oh man, it’s awesome. It feels like home.”

His 19-year-old son, Brandon, was hired as a night guard.

Lonnie Adams was about to start a truck-driving job that would have taken him away from home for 10 to 14 days at a time. The millwright was rehired in April.

“I was really excited,” Adams said. “I’ve done just about everything around here.”

Larry Mason, whose father also worked at the mill, said it was a shock to lose his millwright job last year and a dream to get it back this year. He has been helping his wife at their River Valley Restaurant in Cave Junction.

The upgrades (to the mill) will include computer scanning that optimizes placement of logs for the most efficient use of the wood. Also going in are a $1.6 million planer mill and a huge new sorter that will replace the old eight-man green chain system.

The mill also will fire up its biomass burners, which are used to dry wood and generate electricity.

The three men profiled in the Grants Pass Daily Courier story - Lonnie Rollins, Lonnie Adams and Larry Mason - have a combined 75 years of experience working at the Rough & Ready sawmill.