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Yakama Growing on Success of Small Log Mill
Yakama Forest Products growing on success of log mill

By Staff Writer
Date Posted: 10/1/1999

WHITE SWAN, Wash. ó One of the nationís newest sawmills is the Yakama Forest Products complex in this small town in south-central Washington.

Yakama Forest Products is a company wholly owned by the Yakama Nation Indian tribe, which governs a 1,377,034-acre reservation some 125 miles east of Seattle. The companyís $12 million small log facility, which includes a log sorter-merchandiser, a HewSaw mill, dry kilns, and a planer mill, went into production in the fall of 1998.

The mill represents a strong commitment by the Yakama Nation to the future social, economic and environmental well-being of both the lands and people of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation. The confederation is a governing body consisting of descendants of 14 tribes and bands recognized by the federal government under treaties signed between the tribes and the U.S. in 1855.

The mill also eventually could be part of an important demonstration to the forest products industry. A key goal of the Yakama Nation is to restore the forest on their land to the conditions that existed when Europeans first came to the region.

Chris Ketcham is an employee of Vanport Manufacturing in Boring, Ore., a well known forest products company with extensive operations in the Pacific Northwest. Vanport assists with managing Yakama Forest Products under a consulting contract, and Chris is the millís consulting general manager.

"The Yakama Nation has a huge and important resource on its lands," Chris explained. The tribeís lands contain about 650,000 acres of forest. More than 300,000 acres are designated as commercial timberland. A sustainable level of 143 million board feet of timber is available. "Yakama Forest Products was founded to help assure that the Yakama Nation was getting the greatest return possible from those lands and that timber." The new mill is part of plan to manage the lands and timber resources for the long-term benefit of the Yakama Nation and its peoples.

For years, the Yakama Nation did not reap the most value possible from its lands, according to Chris. Timber was sold for stumpage with little additional gain to the nation as a result of the harvest. "In 1994, the tribal council provided direction that they wanted value added when the nationís resource was harvested. Yakama Forest Products was created as result of that directive."

As part of an orderly business plan aimed at achieving stable growth, Yakama Forest Products was founded first as a log yard. Since 1995 it has bid for logs available from tribal lands, competing against other companies. Yakama Forest Products buys about half the fiber up for bid, sorts and decks the logs, then sells them to mills throughout Washington and Oregon and in the export market.

As soon as the log yard was firmly established as a successful business, planning began for the next stage in the companyís growth ó a small log mill. Small logs are the most difficult for a log yard operation to profitably harvest and sell, so the strategy was to approach that end of the supply chain first. "We targeted the small logs as the raw material with the most potential for added value," said Chris. "About 30 percent of the volume of logs coming from the Yakama Nationís forests are small logs of 12 inches and down. To more fully utilize that resource, we began to look at small log systems so we could process the logs ourselves."

The company researched small log processing systems. Yakama staff visited dozens of operating mills before they settled on a HewSaw R200SE sawing machine. "We looked at virtually every kind of mill on the market," said Chris. "The HewSaw was clearly the best machine available that fit the parameters we had set for a machine, so we decided to go with it. Weíve had nothing but success with it since, so Iíd have to say we definitely made the right decision."

The parameters the company had set for the machine revolved around cost, simplicity, and the ability to handle a range of material yet with high volume production. "Cost was an important consideration," noted Chris. The company did not have the financial resources for a multi-million dollar capital investment. "When we got out there and looked at the marketplace, the HewSaw was very inexpensive compared to many of the machines, yet it had a proven track record of exemplary success."

Simplicity was an important factor because many members of the tribeís work force were unfamiliar with sawmill technology. "One of the key desires of the Yakama Nation in this whole process is providing employment for tribal members," explained Chris. The tribe has a good work force, he noted, but the sawmill is the first one owned by the Yakama Nation, so many of them are inexperienced. "We wanted a machine that was relatively straightforward." At some sawmills, even experienced workers have difficulty operating machinery. "We wanted to avoid that. The HewSaw was ideal in that respect."

The HewSaw system also met requirements for a high volume machine that not only can process ordinary logs but also do curve sawing efficiently. "None of the logs harvested from Yakama Nation lands come from clear-cuts," Chris said. "All are from selective logging operations, so perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the logs we get have enough sweep in them to benefit from curve sawing and give us the increased yield that provides."

After choosing the HewSaw system, the rest of the Yakama Forest Products mill was designed around it in order to maximize production from the saw.

Today, the Yakama Forest Products log yard functions as it always has. As has been the case since the beginning, logs are brought into the 20-acre yard from the Yakama Nationís forest reserves. They are sorted, decked and prepared for sale to the highest bidder. Now, however, small logs are routed to the new mill for processing.

The HewSaw R200SE is a "batch run machine," which means its cutting pattern is established before a production run begins. The machine does not adjust on the fly to a variety of log sizes. To maximize yield and efficiency, logs must be sorted by size and species ahead of the mill and accumulated in sufficient number to allow for continuous feeding. At Yakama Forest Products, at least a half-shiftís worth of logs make up a run. When all the logs of a certain size and species have been milled, the saw is reset to a new configuration, and a new size and species is run.

Because the HewSaw is preset to saw one configuration per run, there is a premium on performing as many sorts as possible. If a log is too big for the set-up, wood that should be sawn into high value products is chipped instead. To maximize yield from the logs, Yakama Forest Products uses a log merchandising system that sorts for 26 combinations of length and diameter. Equipment and electronics for the merchandiser-sorter were supplied by Softac Systems and Flare International Sawmill Systems of Surrey, British Columbia. When fed into the system, logs are scanned for length and diameter on a transverse deck with six shifting, 44-inch overhead chop saws. Once bucked, logs are forwarded to bins for accumulation.

The White Swan area is in central Washington, which is at the northern end of the Great American Desert, so low humidity and high heat are the rule. To help maintain log quality, the bark is left on the logs through the merchandising process. The first step, then, after enough logs of any given size have been accumulated is to debark the logs. At the Yakama Nations mill, the logs are delivered to a feed deck by front-end loader, then run through a Nicholson A5A 17-inch tandem-ring debarker.

The debarker feeds directly into the HewSaw, which is pre-set for the optimum lumber configuration for the log size that is being run. Any fiber not converted to lumber is chipped for sale to board and pulp mills. A 7.2-inch to 7.4-inch run will produce three 2x6 boards and chips, according to Chris. A 6.1-inch sort will allow for two 2x4s and a 2x6. Logs are processed in a single pass; the HewSaw system can achieve speeds of 200 to 400 lineal foot of logs per minute.

The HewSaw R200SE produces a cant by chipping what normally would be slab material in a traditional mill. A double-arbor vertical saw follows; the machine features 13.8-inch saws with a kerf of 0.140-inch to 0.160-inch to make the primary cuts. Finally, edger blades remove wane from top and bottom boards. All the operations take place within a 6-foot stretch of machine.

Emerging from the HewSaw out-feed, the green lumber drops onto a transfer chain and is fed to a two-head trimmer for rough length trimming. Logs typically have few internal defects, so trimming for defects is done at the planing mill.

From the trim saws, lumber is forwarded to parallel Lenco stackers that compile 8-foot packages for the companyís dry kilns. Stickering is done by hand. The wood is air dried for about two weeks. "The air is dry enough here that most of the free moisture is gone within those two weeks," Chris explained.

After two weeks, the wood is moved into one of two COE high temperature dry kilns. Each kiln can hold about 70,000 board feet of lumber. The drying process takes an average of about 24 hours.

"When we were deciding on our kilns, there was considerable concern about the high temperature process," Chris recounted. "But we have had excellent results. We are getting lumber quality that is second to none."

Dried lumber is planed on a re-built Stetson-Ross 6-12C1 16-knife machine that once was owned by International Paper Company. A Wagner Electronics transverse, in-line moisture meter is used to check the wood; "wets" are pulled and air dried.

Trimming is performed by an LSI 16-foot trim saw, formally operated at Cromanís mill in Boise, Idaho.

After planing and trimming, lumber is stacked manually and routed to a re-built strapping station with a Signode press. Finished, bundled lumber is shipped by truck or rail.

Yakama Forest Products has more plans for its facilities. The first step was the log sort yard. The mill for small logs was step two. Step three, Chris said, will be a mill for large logs. When it is completed, Yakama Forest Products will be an integrated business from harvest to finished product. It also will be able to achieve the Yakama Nationís overall plan to improve its resource base, provide jobs for its members, and obtain the most value for fiber sold.

Yakama Forest Products has been a success, bringing economic benefits to the Yakama Nation along with a sense of pride and accomplishment. In addition, some would say it has a potential importance that may be felt throughout the forest products industry. As part of an integrated forest management scheme, it may one day stand as an example of how careful logging and processing for value can improve the forest.

The forests owned by the Yakama Nation are not the forests that existed when the Europeans first came to the region, Chris pointed out. "Fire suppression has changed the nature of the forest. Today we see roughly one-third Ponderosa Pine, one-third Douglas Fir, and one-third White Fir come into the sorting yard. In the original forest there would have been little fir." The reservationís forests are not only being harvested for sustainable yield. The Yakama lands also are being professionally managed with selective logging aimed ó at least in part ó at restoring the forest. In a sense, logging is being used as a substitute for fire.

The accomplishments of Yakama Forest Products and its contribution to the forest products industry have yet to be fully realized. However, it already has succeeded in achieving the Yakama Nationís goals for the mill.

"Our task was to allow the Yakama Nation to realize an economic benefit from its resource," said Chris. "We are certainly well along the road to accomplishing that goal. We were also supposed to provide employment opportunities to people of the Yakama Nation. Including the log sorting, we now have 83 employees. Ninety percent of these employees are tribal members, and most of them had never worked in a sawmill environment before. Those people are gaining experience and knowledge that will be very valuable not only to our mill, but also to the larger community in the future. I think weíve done something good here."

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