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New sawmill could be 'game changer' in forest restoration efforts

Former paper plant turned sawmill

Good Earth Power AZ, a subsidiary of NewLife Forest Products, acquired the former SCA paper plant in Bellemont near Flagstaff to bolster the regional industry’s efforts to reduce the incidence of catastrophic wildfires.

It may be a good year for forest restoration efforts in northern Arizona after news that the former paper plant in Bellemont will become a sawmill.

The company Good Earth Power AZ, a subsidiary of NewLife Forest Products, announced the mill would be using the 425,000-square-foot facility to house a new sawmill that may employ as many as 200 people, according to a media release from the company.

That’s more jobs than the number provided by the paper plant that previously occupied the facility. That operation, by the company Essity, formally called SCA, closed its doors in 2019.

Good Earth Power 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 project is meant to restore 2.4 million acres on the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab and Tonto National Forests to a healthier and more natural state with far fewer trees per acre than the current situation.

Healthier forests, where trees are more spread out from one another, are better able to survive droughts and reduce the risk of large catastrophic wildfires, Andrew Sanchez Meador, executive director of the Ecological Restoration Institute, told the Arizona Daily Sun last week. But after years of suppressing natural fire, forests across much of northern Arizona and the west have become overly dense.

“This is the most exciting and important project I have been involved with in my 40-year career in the forest products industry,” NewLife Forest Products CEO Ted Dergousoff said in a statement. “This facility allows us to leapfrog in our scale as a company and as a vital local industry. […] The Bellemont sawmill will play a key role for keeping Coconino County protected from a catastrophic wildfire event.”

The Bellemont facility is scheduled to open in late March and, according to the company, will house the sawmill, planer mill, kilns and engineered wood product lines, with space allowing for storage and movement of high-value products.

Good Earth Power also plans to build a rail spur connecting to the BNSF line, allowing products to be distributed cost effectively.

Despite currently holding the largest contract for 4FRI, Good Earth Power has struggled to get the job done. The scope of that contract includes treating 300,000 acres total, 30,000 each year. But so far, the company has in total treated a fraction of that.

But according to the company, the new mill could change that, providing the ability to process profitably smaller logs, and as many as 120 million board feet per year of lumber, and ramp up to forest thinning and harvesting to the target of 30,000 acres per year.

Jay Smith, forest restoration director for Coconino County, said the opening of the mill would be “the game changer in for Coconino County and this area” for restoration efforts.

Smith, who worked for Good Earth Power as the senior forester prior to joining the county, said such a facility should greatly accommodate local restoration efforts by providing a destination for the timber and a way for company’s involved to make a profit.

For years, the lack of a local large scale sawmill has been a significant limiting factor on the profitability of restoration efforts, Smith said. And that won’t just impact 4FRI, but the county’s restoration efforts as well.

In December of 2020, the county completed the first phase of its forest restoration plan on Bill Williams Mountain, using helicopters to thin 300 acres of dense forest on steep slopes. That kind of an operation is expensive, but the lack of a mill could help reduce costs, Smith said.

“Part of the money that the county had to spend on Bill Williams was, we paid to get the helicopter logging done, to get the wood to a landing, then we had to pay to get the wood off the landing, because there's no place to take it,” Smith said. “If you have a place that's close by that can consume the wood, that wants the wood, then all those costs get reduced.”

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