Carving a niche

Smaller sawmills struggle to survive

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The whirr of a saw shatters the quiet mountain air outside of Kremmling, the small town visitors pass through as they head to the Yampa Valley.

It's a circular saw, whirling away on a steel contraption that carries huge logs into its teeth.

It's a sawmill not used in any high-volume modern operation, but owner Kent Hester said it gets the job done.

"There was literally hundreds of these sawmills all through this country," Hester said. "Every little rancher had 'em to take out to the forest and saw up their own wood."

Hester's sawmill was actually bought after World War II from a Montgomery Ward catalog by a Kremmling family. It was made to be portable and cost $600. He bought it 12 years ago, after starting up his sawmill operation.

Hester also has the modern bandsaws that cut more efficient, but he guesses he's the only sawmill operation in Colorado still using such an old model.

"What you're doing here is cutting history," Hester said as the four-foot blade sliced up another log.

"This wood doesn't look any different that what it did 70 or 80 years ago."

The boards coming out of the old sawmill, are roughsawn, a custom look some builders are using more.

Hester has had to find these kind of custom niches to keep in business. On this morning two of his six workers are hand peeling logs for a ranch house in Grand County.

"It's pretty much a dying business," Hester said.

"Canada is ruining the American timber business." Not to mention the environmentalist, he added.

Hester explained that Canadian mills, subsidized by their government, can ship in finished lumber cheaper than an American sawmill can buy raw logs. He and others also feel their hands are being tied as the federal government continues to limit logging in national forests because of environmental pressures.

Small sawmills have all but disappeared in Colorado, and the only way the ones still in existance are hanging on is through custom work and unusual wood products.

"You couldn't start a sawmill today," Hester said.

Despite such warnings, two Steamboat Springs men did just that three years ago.

Jon Davenport and Rick Pighini saw a need for custom-built railings and stairways and structural logs... the same kind of product that Hester provides to builders and homeowners in booming areas like Eagle, Silverthorne and Summit County.

"We saw a need for a custom outfit in Steamboat," said co-owner Jon Davenport.

"Somebody needed to do it around here because the closest place is Hester's."

The small Steamboat outfit, called Mingle Wood Timber Saw Mill, can be found off Elk River Road, behind one of the local log home builders.

Logs and timbers are stacked up here and there on the 3 1/2 acres of land.

A pup tent serves as a shelter for the company's one or two workers.

Davenport is still wondering if they made the right decision.

"We're trying to make a living, but we're not there yet," Davenport said.

"Sometimes we go a long time without any money because you have to dump it back in. Most of our paychecks are lying around here in log piles."

However, the Mingle Wood saw mill is keeping busy. They're trying new things like creating wane-edge siding out of pine which is much cheaper than cedar.

Cedar is normally used by home builders wanting that wavy look to their siding.

Mingle Wood is also making log face siding out of pine. And like Hester, they hand peel all sizes of logs that can be used structurally or in items like custom stairways.

"Our niche is doing anything," Davenport said.

"We've gone all over Colorado, Utah to look for logs for specific orders."

Davenport said it was a struggle getting the go-ahead from he city to run the business in the city limits. Now the land they occupy is for sale.

"We're as successful as we've been because we're here in the city," said Davenport, wary of having to move into the countryside. "We'd have a big problem moving."

About 20 miles north of Craig on Highway 13, the Cox Brothers Sawmill once had 25 employees and was run six days a week.

Now, the family is all that's left and they're down to milling only two days a week.

"We were one of the biggest mining cribbing dealers in the state of Colorado," said Delbert Cox. Cribbing is the wood used to hold up the underground roofs.

"We took care of those mines for 10-12 years."

But Cox said a southern mill came in and cut prices.

"They get their hardwoods for nothing in the south," Cox said.

Cox, who always logged his own timber, is keeping afloat by logging for big mills in Olathe and Saratoga that have also managed to stay in business.

But unlike the smaller sawmills, he hasn't turned to some of the more custom woodwork to sustain him. He said he still cuts beams and other wood for homes, ranches and fencing as well as firewood.

"I don't look for us to stay in very much longer," Cox said.

Like many others involved in logging or milling, Cox blames the government restrictions on logging and cheap Canadian lumber.

"Politics is destroying the small sawmills," Cox said.

Not just small mills either agreed Colorado State Forester Russ Lewis.

"The U.S. has cut back so much on logging in the national forests and caused the supply to go down," Lewis said. "The wood's gotten very expensive here and it's cheaper to go to Canada."

U.S. timber firms may find a friend in the Bush Administration which is more open to logging.

Surprisingly, poor wildfire policies by the U.S. and state forest services might give Bush the incentive he needs to allow logging back in national forests.

"It's pretty well accepted that as we've been putting out fires over the last 100 years, we've been delaying burning," said Andy Cadenhead, environmental coordinator for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.

"We're accumulating fuels." In other words, the forests are overgrown and are prime to go up in flames. "A lot of people believe a real decent solution is to send in loggers to thin these trees," Cadenhead said.

"In a lot of cases that can do a lot of good."

The move may be too late for a lot of sawmills in Colorado and elsewhere.

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