As leaders from across northern Arizona watched, mill workers Johnathan Beecroft and Ryan Begay stood in a cavernous room Friday afternoon, quickly lining up small planks of wood, many less than a foot long, onto a conveyor belt.
Traveling on the belt, the planks entered into a finger jointing machine, a large L-shaped contraption. After several seconds, and lots of noise, the product slid out, but rather than many smaller planks, it was one long plank.
It’s the most valuable product the new sawmill, opened in Bellemont by NewLife Forest Restoration, will be able to create. The machine in essence glues smaller planks of wood together to create a more useful and valuable product.
The technology used to create it isn’t revolutionary. But the impact of it might get close.
For years, forest restoration efforts in northern Arizona have faced several challenges, including the lack of a sawmill and the difficulty making money from the low-quality wood produced by restoration efforts.
“By its very nature, the trees that we extract are not the best trees in the forest,” NewLife Forest Restoration CEO Ted Dergousoff said. "Of course you want to leave behind the healthiest, largest, oldest trees to continue to shape the forest after it’s been restored."
NewLife currently holds the largest contract with the United States Forest Service for logging operations associated with the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, also called 4FRI.
That initiative hopes to treat 2.4 million acres on the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab and Tonto national forests, lowering the risk of catastrophic wildfires and creating a healthier ecosystem.
But throughout much of the time it has held the contract, NewLife has struggled to get its acres thinned. The scope of its contract includes treating 300,000 acres total, 30,000 each year. But so far, the company has in total treated a fraction of that.
The new Bellemont sawmill that opened on Friday might just help change all that by finding a way to make money out of small, low-quality trees.
“This is the most exciting project that I've been involved with in my 40 years in the industry,” Dergousoff told the group of gathered leaders just before the ribbon cutting.
The sense of optimism for what the mill could mean for ongoing forest restoration was shared by many, including Coconino County Chair and District 3 Supervisor Matt Ryan.
“It offers us promise to address the biomass bottleneck that has historically limited the pace and scale of forest restoration in northern Arizona,” Ryan told the gathered leaders. “We're excited to see the impact and production of this facility and how it will impact the forest restoration throughout the region.”
And that work is an ever-increasing priority for leaders locally and across the nation as a changing climate and unhealthy forests threaten to devastate communities.
At the moment, the vast majority of the 425,000-square-foot facility is still empty with only a handful of machines.
Dergousoff said over the course of the next year, that should change. By next year, the floor should be full of machinery and could be operating at full capacity.
At that time, Dergousoff said they will then look to build a new section of railroad from the facility to the BNSF railway line.
Once fully staffed, the facility is expected to employ about 200 people and will house the sawmill, planer mill, kilns for drying the wood and engineered wood product lines, with space allowing for storage and movement of high-value products.
With all that, company officials say they will produce an estimated 120 million board feet per year of lumber.
Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund.