Too Many Dead Trees: Sierra Sawmills Face a Backlog

Workers at Sierra Forest Products get lumber ready for shipments. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

Larry Duysen’s family has run Sierra Forest Products in the small town of Terra Bella, just west of the Sierra Nevada, for almost 50 years.

His father, Glenn Duysen, founded the company in 1968. At that time, there were seven other sawmills in the region logging trees in the Sequoia National Forest.

“But as wood became less available, one by one, they went out of business,” he says. Logging was restricted and the creation of the Giant Sequoia National Monument put large tracts of land off-limits.

Now Sierra Forest Products is the only sawmill left in the entire southern Sierra. And it has gone from a two-shift operation to one.

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But this year, because of wildfires and the drought, Duysen could easily use two shifts. His log deck outside -- where the logs are stacked several stories high before being milled -- is almost full.

It means for the first time in many years, he has to turn customers away.

The log deck at Sierra Forest Products is almost full.
The log deck at Sierra Forest Products is almost full. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

“We’ve had so many years of, I’ll say famine, as far as supply goes,” Duysen says. “It’s really disheartening for me to have to answer a phone call and tell people we just cannot help them.”

He’s talking mainly about private landowners who are hoping to sell wood from trees killed by the drought and bark beetles. But the company is already backlogged with fire salvage trees from two large wildfires in the Sierra National Forest.

“We could run the mill on that alone and have a surplus,” he says. Taking new contracts is out of the question right now.

“The emergency or catastrophe is at such an extent that at this time we can’t take all the wood,” Duysen says of the fire and insect salvage. “We don’t have the capacity for it.”

The mill can take 36 million board-feet of lumber a year; the wood from the fires alone amounts to about 40 million board-feet, Duysen says.

About 2½  hours north of Terra Bella, logger Hudson Fisk knows all too well that there’s a glut at the mills.

He’s been removing dead trees from private properties in Mariposa and Madera counties all summer.

Hudson Fisk’s team of loggers takes down a dead Ponderosa pine tree.
Hudson Fisk’s team of loggers takes down a dead Ponderosa pine tree. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

In past years, he would take the logs to Terra Bella or one of two sawmills in Sonora.

“There’s really no market for it anymore,” Fisk says of the insect salvage. “It’s hard to make a profit selling the wood.”

He used to be able to give landowners a credit for their wood. But now he has to charge them to remove it. “We’re just stockpiling it back at our yard,” he says. “Some of it we process into firewood.”

And some will be used for lumber, but most of it will go into a chipper. “I have a feeling in a couple years from now, a large portion of our log decks are gonna just end up getting chipped into mulch,” Fisk says. “We’ll make compost out of it.”

If he had fresh green trees, he’d get more money. But the damaged trees bring in about 40 percent less.

“Right now I can’t even get a contract to sell," Fisk says. "But if I could, the price would be so low it wouldn’t even cover my trucking cost."

But some people are benefiting from the surplus wood, at least in Mariposa County. Homeowners can donate their logs to the senior firewood program at the Mariposa Fire Safe Council -- and feel good about helping those on a fixed income stay warm in the winter.

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