The October rain on freshly cut pine logs, five miles west of Ash Fork, is a sweet scent for many reasons. It is the location of Southwest Forest Products Inc. (SFP), a forest products mill that opened in July. The privately owned Phoenix company has created a bright spot at 8108 W. Old Highway 66.
Ed Martin, SFP Vice President of Forestry, is in good company with many excited folks.
"The mill represents a huge sustainable resource and long term economic benefits for Ash Fork and all of western Arizona," he said.
The mill has 52 employees that hail from Ash Fork, Williams and Paulden. The forklift operators, sawyers, lumber stackers, truck drivers and administrators in the mobile mini office, keep the $5 million mill operating around the clock, Monday through Friday.
The most recent timber sale bid that Martin garnered for the mill was on Government Hill off Spring Valley Road, near Parks on the Kaibab National Forest. The company had 30 days to decide what they could afford to bid. Then they met the minimum bid the Forest Service had put on it, and beat any competition. It's a win-win situation for everyone; the land is cleared of overcrowded trees and wildfire danger, people are employed and a renewable resource is utilized into a marketable product, said Martin.
The area to be logged is pre-approved by a two-year study and assessment by NEPA (National Environmental Protection Agency) to thin for a healthy sustainable forest. The Forest Service sends out their crews to mark the designated acreage for forest restoration, by marking the trees to be thinned with orange paint. Next, the loggers cut 45- to 50-foot tall ponderosa pines, which on average are 90- to 100-years-old.
The logs are trucked down Route 66 and brought in to the metal roofed building, unloaded on conveyor belts and then debarked. Each truckload has labels attached to the ends, dating its harvest time and the area it was shipped from for record keeping.
The mill is quite an office for the workers to enjoy each day, set on a high plateau with a 90-degree view of distant mountain ranges in each direction. Earplugs and heavy gloves protect the men's hands and ears, but the mountains and woody aroma are benefits of the job. Next, the logs are sorted into 18 different grades, according to dimension, length and quality. A computerized edging system contains a laser that determines how much can be recovered into timbers or cut stock. After the system looks at the log, it sets the saws automatically. The logs are then sawed into one inch thick boards and the remaining wood is chopped into a mountain of chips.
Employees and residents can be proud of the new mill that also benefits the land. The beautiful Mogollon Rim Mountain range that stretches from the Kiabab Forest to Alpine and across the border to New Mexico, is the largest continuous stretch of Ponderosa Pine trees in North America.
"We are doing forest restoration by thinning out areas that were meant to have 60 trees per acre and often have 600," Martin states.
He is well equipped for the position, as a graduate of the British Columbia Institute of Technology in forestry and was raised in a Canadian logging family.
The Forest Service hasn't had funds to pay loggers to thin the forest even with the wildland fire dangers looming from decades of drought, fire suppression and areas of bark beetle infestation. Logging mills did not have a need to purchase the small and medium diameter logs and home builders sought specialty beams.
Jerry Drury, the staff officer timber manager at the Kiabab Forest Service office reinforces the positive aspects for many entities.
"Southwest Forest Products quickly became the largest purchaser of small diameter timber in northern Arizona. This market has given the Forest Service the tool needed to treat thousands of acres annually at no or low cost to the taxpayer," Drury said. "We are very pleased that a small diameter timber industry is active again in northern Arizona. It will help us treat more acres, which will improve forest health, reduce the risk of high-intensity wildfire and provide protection to public and private resources."
Steve Van Der Toorn Sr., of Phoenix, is the owner of SFP and has marketed wood for pallets since 1984.
"Pallets are the second largest utilization of wood in North America, just behind new home building," Martin notes and adds, "Steve Van Der Toorn Sr. had the brain child for the mill in Ash Fork, which would allow the company to bid on forest areas to be thinned/restored and pay the Forest Service for the wood that we could turn into many products. The mill equipment is all brand new and purchased from Pendu Equipment of Pennsylvania.
"The square timbers, that are 4 to 6 inches by 6 X 8, are used for buyers that re-saw it into pieces for landscaping, furniture and pallets. Much of that timber is sold in Texas, California, Arizona, Phoenix and Mexico," Martin said. "There are car companies and steel manufacturers near the border that need heavier pallets than the 2 X 4 wood boards.
Tree boxes for Valley nurseries are the next large market. The mill makes a range of sizes, to fit the customers' needs. SFP has a line of private label top soil, potting soil and other bagged mulch products and the Scotts Company purchases the bark nuggets for their bags of mulch in large, small and medium bark pieces. The bark keeps moisture from escaping tree wells throughout the west in the hot summer months, while providing an aesthetically pleasing landscaping decoration.
Wood chips that are made into fuel pellets for home heating and industrial users are also a fast growing market.
"Industrial users need to use enough 'co-fire' materials to get their green credit," Martin explained.
The combination of coal and wood for a green credit requires them to utilize at least 20 percent of the energy from wood. This is such a fast growing commodity that SFP is in the planning stages of building a wood fuel pellet facility.
There is the huge bed of decomposing chips and sawdust that lies around the mill.
"The future of the smaller chips and sawdust is to be palletized, sold bulk, chipped and shaved for horse stall bedding, or another use we haven't heard of yet." Martin said.
Martin is enthusiastic when he talks about the vision his company has for creating a marketing plan for the multiple uses for wood products. He walks through the carpet of fragrant wood chips, with his black dog, Precious, that his wife Jannie named, trotting behind. His enjoyment of forest products is evident. Although he will be traveling to Canada with his wife and one-year-old baby next week, and visiting the rich Canadian forest he was born in, he looks about the neatly organized wood cutting operation that sits on 120 acres in Ash Fork.
"People will continually come up with new wood product ideas, market them and much of this wood we will be harvesting will sell in new forms," Martin said.