OK, so let’s get this straight from the jump: Everything I know about the timber industry could fit on the head of a pin. That’s not good for a business reporter, considering how critical the industry is to the Douglas County economy — 6,600 jobs and an annual economic output of $1.5 billion.
So my learning curve is admittedly huge. To begin my schooling I signed on for a tour of Swanson Group lumber mill on Old Highway 99 south of Roseburg. The tour was led by Chris Swanson, executive vice president of Swanson Group, and Jeff Remington, vice president of engineering and mill services. Joining us were Matt Hill, executive director of Douglas Timber Operators, and Tina Roy, DTO executive assistant.
Two things became immediately apparent on the tour — the noise, and size, of the plant. The noise is easily dealt with by earplugs; the size and breadth evoke awe throughout the tour.
Outside there are seemingly endless stacks of logs, some reaching 40 feet in length. The logs total about 12 million board feet (a board foot measures 1 inch thick, 12 inches wide and 12 inches long) which, if I did my math right, is enough to build 1,000 average size homes.
The mill, which was built in 2001 and has undergone three major upgrades, is five stories high and keeps humming 20 hours a day. It employs about 120 workers, Swanson said. Swanson Group employs about 750 workers total, 500 of them in Douglas County. Yet there are openings and they have proven to be hard to fill, he said.
“It’s very tough to find people who want to show up to work every day,” Swanson said.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me was the fascinating mix of old-school materials, machinery and even philosophies augmented by high tech, computer-driven equipment.
There seemed to be scanning cameras and computer monitors everywhere. As each log zips through the mill it is scanned to determine how to get the most sellable wood from it. That information is sent to the various saws, which perform the cuts.
It takes about two minutes from beginning to end for a log to be processed — which means during a typical day, 7,000 logs will be cut.
Each board is sorted by length and grade, again using scanners. The use of cameras, scanners and computers is the biggest innovation in the industry, Remington said.
“It used to be done by humans, now it’s all scanning,” he said. “It’s allowed everyone to get faster. Most of the people in this business have to stay up to date to survive.”
The focus on technology is to a large degree the result of a diminishing supply of lumber, especially that located on federal land, Hill said.
“The shortage of raw materials has forced the mills that survived to be more efficient,” he said. “People think this is the same industry it was 30 years ago and it’s completely different.”
Oregon, and Douglas County in particular, still have an outsized presence in the forest product industry. For example, there are 21 mills in Douglas County compared to eight in all of Montana, and there is one main reason for that, Hill said.
“Why do we still have so many mills here? Because we’ve got the trees,” he said, adding that Oregon is still the leading producer of plywood in the country.
The shortage of trees and increased cost of securing them — raw materials account for 70% of the total operational cost — has also forced Swanson Group and others in the industry to maximize every bit of every log that comes through the plant. Nothing is wasted.
The bark that is removed from each tree is burned and used to create steam for the boilers. Whatever wood that doesn’t make the cut is made into chips.
“You try to get as much out of the logs as you can,” Remington said.
Despite the tech advancements over the years, this still remains an incredibly difficult and challenging time for forest products companies like Swanson Group, who find themselves competing against not only other states but countries.
“It’s definitely a world market even though we’re in Roseburg, Oregon,” Swanson said.
Those difficult market conditions — most acutely a shortage of available logs — are what led Swanson Group to close its sawmill in Glendale earlier this year, Swanson said. The equipment was sold at an auction this summer and every employee was offered a position at other Swanson Group operations, he said.
Despite all that, the forest product industry still remains critical to the regional economy, Hill said, and not just for the direct jobs it provides. There are also indirect jobs tied to the industry — gas stations, restaurants and vehicle repair shops, for example — as well as other benefits, he said.
For example, DTO, which has over 140 members, holds an annual fish derby and auction to raise money for local fish restoration and education projects. The events have raised more than $1.6 million, Hill said.
“All of these family-owned businesses continue to do huge things for the community,” Hill said. “Most of them don’t want any credit for it.”