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Cass board learns about wood market on tour

BEMIDJI — Cass County commissioners and soil and water conservation district elected officials Monday toured two wood processing plants near Bemidji to learn more about the current and future market for timber cut from county land.

In the morning, those officials toured a Potlatch lumber milling plant east of Bemidji, but news media were not allowed on that portion of the tour. Potlatch officials told Cass Land Commissioner Joshua Stevenson that the firm has a company-wide policy against allowing news media on their property.

In the afternoon, the Cass officials and this Dispatch reporter toured the Norbord oriented strand board (OSB) plant west of Bemidji near Solway.

This plant now purchases much of the Cass County wood that once was sold to the now-closed Ainsworth plant near Bemidji.

Norbord’s main office is in Toronto, Canada. The firm originated in Canada, but has sold or closed many of its operations there, because their market is elsewhere.

Today, Norbord’s largest concentration of active mills is in southeastern U.S. states where trees grow twice as fast as in Canada and northern U.S. states.

Their OSB sheet product is sold under the trademark name Trubord to big box stores like Home Depot and to local, independently owned lumberyard stores.

Before the recession, there were five OSB plants under various ownerships in Minnesota. Today, the Bemidji Norbord plant is the only surviving OSB plant in the state.

Jack Wollingford, a Norbord manager at Bemidji, told the Cass officials the recent recession impact put new housing starts for single and multiple family units at the lowest level in 2008 to 2010 that has been experienced since 1946 at the end of World War II.

Wood processing plants’ highest expense is wood.

Employees are the next highest expense, Wollingford said. Because of this, only newer more efficient plants or those that continually upgrade will survive, he said.

Their Bemidji plant was built in 1981. It is considered “old”.

Since 1996, the company has invested $28.9 million, mostly to improve efficiency and meet air quality emission standards. Today, the vapor you see coming out of smoke stacks at the plant is largely pure water vapor, not smoke.

Norbord at Bemidji plans to make another $3 million investment to upgrade the plant next year.

Their assembly line is not a row of conveyor belts with employees standing beside it to mechanically move wood through the line. It is mostly a huge building full of self-contained operations enclosed in huge, multi-story metal boxes where material moves from logs to moist chips to dry chips to thick mats to compressed mats – largely unseen by walking around the plant.

There is a four-stall exit area where semi-trucks load wrapped and banded pallets of finished strand board sheets to deliver to stores.

Employees are highly skilled technician who operate the equipment by computer from glass sided, small office perched above the plant floor. There also are electricians and mechanical experts who maintain the equipment and sharpen cutting knives.

The plant has its own fire truck and fire-fighting crew to contain fires at the plant.

The Bemidji plant employs 141 people today. It runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Stevenson estimates, based on Norbord figures that the plant accepts 70 semi loads of logs every 24-hour period and ships out 35 truckloads of finished products a day. The lower output represents the fact the wood is dryer and more compressed than when it comes into the plant.

Jim Haffner, procurement manager, who led our tour group, said much of the efficiency depends upon a plant not letting any part of the logs go to waste.

At the Bemidji plant, all bark removed from logs and logs rejected by a metal sensor (those that might have a nail in them) are used to fire wood burners that are used to heat the plant and dry wood chips.

There are no sawdust piles or waste chip piles seen anywhere around the plant.

The wood is dried in chip form, not as a whole log, making drying time much faster, Haffner explained. Part of Norbord’s Bemidji plant upgrading has been to provide faster drying equipment.

The plant dries 30,000 pounds of wood chips per hour in one drying system it has and one and a half times that in another. The higher efficiency dryer system cost $13 million.

Wollingford said at the peak before the recession cost for logs had hit a high here close to $50 per cord, twice the amount the firm was paying for wood in southeastern states.

After the recession hit, log costs here have dropped to a figure in the same range as southeastern states.

Wollingford sees wood volumes used and markets for finished products trending upward since 2010.

The Bemidji firm currently buys about 210,000 cords of mixed aspen varieties, 45,000 maple/birch and 45,000 pine/tamarack cords per year. Stevenson said this species proportion is comparable to that sold from Cass County land. Norbord’s purchases are equivalent to 25,000 truckloads per year.

The firm used to buy only aspen.

Norbord buys about 33 percent of its wood from loggers who cut on county land in each of six surrounding counties – Beltrami, Becker, Cass, Clearwater, Hubbard and Itasca. That represents about 20 percent of the logs cut from Cass County land.

Norbord’s purchases from private land has dropped from 50 percent to 34 percent of what it uses and includes 20 percent form state land, 3 percent from U.S. Forest Service land and 10 percent from Bureau of Indian Affairs land.

When a county commissioner asked whether it matters that Cass has Forest Stewardship Certified (FSC) wood, Hollingford said wood products consumers of construction materials so far demand less certified wood than paper products consumers do.

However, he also indicated he thinks that if the U.S. Forest Service had qualified their land for FSC or even the less stringent industry initiative Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI) certification, that fewer lumber mills in the northwest U.S. would have close than did during the controversy over spotted owls.

Hollingford summed up the importance of county generated wood to Norbord by telling the Cass officials, “if counties had not stuck with us (during the recession), we would not be here now.”