Recently I traveled to North Idaho to visit some of the conservation projects The Nature Conservancy is undertaking there. I write conservation easements on working timberland in Boundary County, where grizzly bears, bull trout and forest products are all supported by healthy forests.
In North Idaho, development and fragmentation are putting our healthy forests in peril. A working timberland conservation easement is a permanent agreement between a forest owner and the Conservancy that prohibits certain land uses – like development, mining and subdivision – while allowing for ongoing timber management and harvest.
And a conservation easement can ensure that forest products can be harvested from the property forever – creating a stable economic output. A special interest I had was to see where timber harvested on our conservation easements goes once it leaves the forest.
Since many North Idaho towns are undergoing economic hardships, I wanted to see how our conservation easements can play a role in keeping rural communities economically viable.
I didn’t know it, but I was about to be surprised. Lumber mills of today have enough lasers, 3-D scanners, safety features and cutting edge technology to put the Jet Propulsion Lab to shame.
Idaho Forest Group runs a state-of-the-art lumber mill in Moyie Springs, Idaho, and two of their staff – resource manager Bob Blanford and mill manager Jesse Short - graciously offered me a tour.
We arrived at the business office and had a safety briefing before we were issued hardhats, orange hi-visibility vests, earplugs and safety glasses. The Moyie Springs Mill places a premium on safety, and I saw evidence of attention to safety practices everywhere I went.
I watched logging trucks pull up to be weighed, with small diameter logs aboard – very similar to the logs that are harvested from lands the Conservancy holds conservation easements on.
The logs were removed by Cat 988s, and were then arranged over a fifty-acre yard and measured by mill workers called ‘log scalers.’ A log sorter and loader then raised logs onto a conveyor belt, which whisked them into the mill. Each log goes through an optical scanner as it enters the mill – I was soon to see why.
I was glad for the earplugs, as the noise inside was an intense rattle, screech and rumble. Archimedes would have been pleased by what he saw – every type of simple machine was in use, whether alone or compounded.
Metal mesh catwalks allowed us to walk safely over the rushing conveyor belts and machinery.
We did our best to keep out of the way of the friendly, busy workers. There are about 100 men and women employed at the Moyie Springs Mill, and on any given shift, about 65 people are working there.
In the center of the mill, we opened a heavy door and entered a sound-proofed room full of live-feed video and computer screens. The room was dark and stuffy, and in the center of the room was a man in a chair with consoles at the end of both armrests. The consoles and two wings on either side had more than one hundred buttons, levers, joysticks and lights.
Each video feed showed moving machinery, logs and lumber, and each computer screen showed a 3D scan of each log as it entered the mill. The scan calculated how many boards, of what dimensions, could be made from each log.
The computer also calculated the rotation that each log would need to have in order to achieve maximum efficiency from the cut. On every screen, logs rumbled at breakneck speed through the apparatus. The man had to monitor all 17 screens, and slow or stop any conveyor or machine that was too crowded or had a mechanical problem.
The man looked as calm and collected as Ripley in Aliens. I’m certain he could have operated a cargo-loader against an alien queen without batting an eye.
After a day or less in the drying kilns, the cut pieces of lumber are assessed for quality. I watched the mill workers gauge and grade each piece of lumber as it moved by on a conveyor belt.
The workers were looking for lumber that was checked, cracked, excessively knotted, irregular or otherwise lower-quality. They marked the boards with different colors corresponding to quality.
All boards will be sold; but the best boards will fetch a premium from the retail outlets.Finally, the graded boards were sent through a labeler, bar coder and waxer – the ends of each board are brushed with wax to prevent cracking – and then the boards are stacked on pallets, loaded on trucks, and shipped to a Lowe’s or Menards near you.
Next time I am in the hardware store buying Idaho lumber, I will look at a 2x4 with a much greater appreciation of what it means – to the grizzlies, the foresters, the log truck drivers, the equipment operators, and the mill workers of Boundary County.
A board isn’t just a board. It’s symbolic of a functioning economy and ecosystem.