Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sawtooth Wood Recycling keeps it local

Express Staff Writer

Sawtooth Wood Recycling principals Alex Kittrell, left, and Justin Toothman measure a piece of fir before slabbing it on their mill located just south of Bellevue. Photo by Willy Cook

Rising fuel prices may soon favor small businesses like Sawtooth Wood Recycling in Bellevue, where nearby trees are turned into lumber for the construction trade. The company salvages trees from southern Idaho, and mills them into custom dimensions for local contractors and furniture builders.

"I think there used to be a lot of mom-and-pop sawmilling operations out there, then they got really big. Now it seems as though they may be getting smaller again," says Hailey native Justin Toothman, who worked as a helicopter logger from Oregon to Alaska for 15 years before founding Sawtooth Wood Recycling four years ago.

Toothman was joined by arboriculturist and former U.S Forest Service employee Alex Kittrell two years ago. The two men operate a portable band-saw mill south of Glendale Road where a stack of 1,000 logs from six tree species harvested in the region await transformation into lumber for woodworkers.

Most lumber used in the Wood River Valley comes from wholesalers who mill two-by-fours, two-by-sixes and other standard widths cut from logs that are harvested across the northwest and Canada. Lumber retailers in Hailey and Bellevue reported falling lumber prices last week due to a glut brought on by the slow down in the housing market. But will prices stay low in the future as shipping rates continue to rise due to diesel fuel that costs nearly $5 a gallon?

"A two-by-four can travel 1,000 miles before you buy it at Home Depot," says Kittrell. " The amount of fuel used for local lumber supplies makes sense, in terms of carbon footprint, especially in this valley. Besides, you can't buy a 3 x 20 inch hardwood beam at Home Depot."

The bulk of logs used by Sawtooth Wood Recycling come from forest thinning operations to reduce stands of Douglas fir and lodgepole pine trees in The Wood River Valley and Stanley Basin.

The company custom-fashioned Douglas fir lintels for a Sawtooth Construction project in Ketchum recently. The wood was taken from Martin Canyon in Muldoon Canyon east of Bellevue during a thinning project that was designed to increase elk habitat on BLM land.

So-called "dead standing" pine trees in the Stanley Basin have been logged heavily in recent years for firewood. The cutting was encouraged by the Forest Service in to reduce the tinderbox of dead timber left in the wake of pine beetle infestations brought on by an extended period of drought.

Yet Kittrell, who has a degree in biology from the University of Montana, says the beetle-killed-trees are good for more than firewood, despite blue stains left in the wood by a fungus associated with the pine beetle.

"Sawmills used to dock your pay for having these stains in your logs, but it has been proven that they don't affect the integrity of the wood," he said.

Both Kittrell and Toothman spent years harvesting logs in California and the Pacific Northwest, selling them to industrial logging operations, including Weyerhaeuser, Sierra Pacific and Boise Cascade. Kittrell climbed and trimmed trees in college in Bloomington, Indiana, before working as a trail crew foreman with the Ketchum Ranger District.

Justin Toothman's father Jim Toothman operated a logging company in Featherville in the 1970's, supplying logs for Sawtooth Lumber Mill in Mountain Home.

"Those big sawmills take a lot of money to operate," Toothman said. "By the time the Forest Service or BLM put up a timber sale, the environmentalists fight it and it goes to litigation, It's really not worth it for them."

The Sawtooth Lumber Mill has since closed its doors. Industrial logging operations such as Boise Cascade have had to downsize and reconfigure logging practices in the state, due in part to lengthy court battles with environmental groups working to protect old growth forests.

"Pretty much all we do now is salvage logging," says Toothman, who has been collecting other wood species, including sycamore, elm, cottonwood, maple and black walnut.

Cottonwood is cheap, dispensable and often used for trailer skids. Douglas fir is both pliable and strong and often used for large beams in homes. Black Walnut sells for up to ten times the price of Douglas fir.

Sawtooth Wood Recycling recently sold a number of 12-foot long slabs of the dense hardwood to Hailey carpenter Nate Scales, who turned them into a large conference table for the new Rocky Mountain Hardware building. Toothman says the table, which sits on a sycamore base, is worth $30,000. He has a six- foot version in his own kitchen, which he says would go for $10,000.

"People think that if you have a big log of black walnut, you have a lot of money, says Toothman. "But it is only valuable if you can dry it properly and mill it properly."

Toothman and Kittrell have designs for a solar kiln for drying milled lumber. They expect to build the kiln, which looks like a greenhouse, in the next few weeks. Solar kilns use passive solar energy and fans to bring temperatures to 160 degrees, for the three-week-long process of drying black walnut. Softwoods can dry in a few days.

"You don't want to dry wood too fast," says Kittrell. "This will encourage splitting, warping and cracking. The black walnut is harder to find and harder to cure."

Kittrell and Toothman are also custom-milling wood for log cabin remodels through Franklin Building Supply in Bellevue and providing wood for signs for companies including Windy city Graphics, and Sweetwater Townhomes.

"This is a sustainable harvest," says Kittrell. "We harvest it here, we mill it here and we sell it here. The wood doesn't travel far to become useful for the customer."

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