Montrose Forest Products has announced it is working on plans to expand its Montrose mill to process ponderosa pine harvested from the San Juan National Forest in Southwest Colorado.
The $20 million mill upgrade is pending long-term timber sale assurances from the national forest plus blessings from counties where the timber will be logged, said Norm Birtcher, a resource forester for the company.
“Once those agreements are in place, the plan is to move forward,” he said Wednesday during a special meeting with Montezuma County commissioners. “The San Juan Forest has been very cooperative to work with.”
The mill would produce one-by-four, one-by-six and one-by-eight lumber for construction and decking. The chips and bark will be sold for oil fields, landscaping and other uses.
Birtcher was optimistic about the plan and anticipates the mill upgrade could be completed in two years, with increased logging in Montezuma and Dolores counties beginning soon after. Thinning ponderosa stands in La Plata and Archuleta counties is also part of the company’s long-term plan.
The company has requested enough ponderosa stock to process 20 million board feet per year over the next 20 years.
The much anticipated news was welcomed by Montezuma County officials and San Juan National Forest managers who have been struggling with how to substantially thin overstocked forests needed to lessen the risk of larger wildfires and major beetle infestations.
“It’s exciting for the agency and the community to put a larger dent into what needs to be done,” said Dolores District Ranger Derek Padilla.
Forest officials are planning the environmental analyses needed to accommodate the company’s request for ponderosa timber, he said.
Currently, the local market for ponderosa is small and focuses on firewood, poles, posts and paneling stock.
The limited logging sales are insufficient for the amount of thinning needed in the Dolores District, said forester David Casey. Several proposed sales have completed environmental reviews are ready to go but have sat on the shelf without any takers.
San Juan National Forest has been recruiting Montrose Forest Products to consider thinning out local ponderosa stands.
As a test, this summer the company logged 12 truckloads of ponderosa pine north of Dolores and near Mancos and had it milled into lumber in one of its South Dakota mills. The test proved successful, Birtcher said.
“We are in favor of this, and it is important to reduce the risk wildfire and beetle infestation,” said commissioner Larry Don Suckla.
He wondered whether logging projects might be challenged by environmentalists. Officials said they didn’t think so, crediting a good understanding in the region about the need to thin out forests to prevent larger wildfires. It will also help the economy and create logging jobs, they said.
Clear-cutting large swaths is no longer a logging method, forest officials said. It has been replaced by selective thinning to create a mosaic of different aged stands interspersed by meadows. Logging would use existing roads, but temporary ones could be installed then decommissioned or put in storage for future projects. Once logged, the local timber will be hauled out of the forest and over Lizard Head Pass to the Montrose mill. The commissioners were agreeable to accommodating the heavy trucks on county roads.
Commissioner Keenan Ertel inquired whether Montrose Forest Products had considered building a mill in the county to avoid transportation costs.
Birtcher said that idea was seriously studied but was dropped because to be profitable, a mill needs to be centrally located in an area like Montrose that has more national forests to draw timber from.
Padilla said environmental assessments are being planned that will lay the groundwork for the requested ponderosa timber sales and other vegetation treatment such as prescribed fire.
This year, an environmental assessment is planned for 30,000 acres of forest in the Trimble Point area near Narraguinnep Canyon. In 2019, another environment assessment will cover 30,000 acres or more of forest east of Trimble Point. The area has been hit hard by the round-headed pine beetle in recent years. Trees with the beetle infestation can still be used for lumber if harvested soon.
Padilla said the announcement by a major mill is significant for the health of the local forest.
“In the 1990s, it was determined we needed to be treating 10 to 20 thousand acres per year to get our forest back in shape, but without having a major industry player we could never get there,” Padilla said. “Now, with Montrose Forest Products, we can increase the level of treatment and get the forest in healthier condition in a shorter time frame than we could do otherwise.”
Montrose Forest Products is owned by Neiman Enterprises Inc. The company operates four other lumber mills in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming.