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Mill for small-diameter wood targeted

| July 14, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

A Libby economic development official is negotiating with owners of sawmills in nearby states about opening a mill here to process small diameter logs.

Paul Rumelhart, executive director of the Kootenai River Development Council, declined to name the companies. However, he is encouraged about the possibility of attracting a mill operator.

It would cost about $2.5 million to build a mill for small logs, he said, and a total of $15 million if planing and drying facilities were included. Logs between 7 and 9 inches in diameter would be used, with each producing two 2-by-4s and two 2-by-6s with little waste, Rumelhart said.

Potential mill operators would need about 50 million board feet annually to be profitable, he said, adding that salvage sales on the Kootenai National Forest could provide that amount indefinitely.

"It's very real," Rumelhart said, "but it's all forest-plan dependent."

The Kootenai's management plan is currently being revised, although timber harvesting levels have not been calculated for the future. Forest Service spokesman Greg Kujawa told the Lincoln County Commissioners last week that it's likely this year's harvest level of about 50 million board feet will be unchanged in 2006.

Rumelhart said that amount should be doubled, and he believes stewardship contracting might be the key to providing more timber for a potential mill. In those timber sales, revenue stays with the Forest Service jurisdiction offering the sale, he said, while revenue from traditional timber sales goes to the Department of Treasury.

Much of the proceeds from stewardship contracts are used for projects on the forest, such as stream restoration or trail building. Excess revenue from one project can help fund another stewardship project.

"The primary objective of stewardship contract projects is to focus more on what is left on the ground than what is removed from it," Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth has said.

Rumelhart sees revenue reverting to the Kootenai from stewardship contract sales as a way to defray costs of timber sales themselves, thus allowing more sales by the agencies with strained budgets. One of the cost factors in timber sales is the environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

"I'd like to see a 10-year, 50-million-board-feet stewardship project," Rumelhart said.

The Kootenai has had two such projects. The 211-acre Yaak Community Collaborative helped reduce fire fuel levels, improve wildlife habitat and restore streams while boosting employment locally.

The 678-acre Treasure Interface project had many of the same goals, including reducing wildfire risk and providing log supplies.

Economic benefits from establishing even a small local mill would be significant, Rumelhart said. Industry standards project that for every million board feet of timber processed, one employee is needed in the mill. For every mill worker, two to three loggers and contractors are employed, he said.

Boosting the annual harvest would also remove some potential fire fuel.

"It creates a more healthy forest," Rumelhart said.