SARATOGA, Wyoming – Not everyone in their 60s wants to buy a failed business, try to revive it, and move half-way across the country in order to do it.
Re-starting the largest production sawmill in Wyoming has been a labor of love for Gary Ervin. His initiative also is paving the way to help reduce the fire hazard in a national forest in the region and restore it to health.
Gary, 67, is the managing partner of Saratoga Forest Management, which operates a sawmill in the town of Saratoga in south-central Wyoming. The community is only about 45 miles north of the Colorado state line, and the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest spans an area that stretches across both states.
Background in Forest Products, Seeking to Revive an Old Mill
Saratoga Forest Management provides forest management services and operates the refurbished sawmill. It specializes in manufacturing straight, strong, framing lumber from high-altitude Engelmann spruce and lodgepole pine (ESLP) forests. The region produces slow-growing, dense trees that yield straight studs. In fact, the company’s stud lumber products are marketed under the trademark Saratoga Straights™.
Gary originally was from Oregon, where he has spent his career in the forest products industry. He was involved in buying timber, logging and managing his own forest land.
The mill has been part of the Saratoga community since the 1940s, but it closed in 2003 when Louisiana-Pacific was unable to purchase enough timber from federal land. The mill changed hands, and Gary bought it and another mill in Colorado from McDougal Brothers in 2011. After more than a year of legal wrangling, he gained full control of the assets in Wyoming and relinquished those in Colorado to a creditor.
The two facilities had been the largest production sawmills in their respective states, according to Gary, who admits he had second thoughts about trying to save them and almost decided to liquidate the mill assets.
He subsequently took on a couple of minority partners, Clint Georg and Brian Nerney, who had no previous experience in the forest products industry. Clint oversees the handling of residual materials while Brian essentially is a silent partner.
Gary set about refurbishing the mill and tapped Scott Williams to manage it. Scott has owned three mills in the past and has extensive knowledge of sawmill machinery and operations. “We’ve had to rely on Scott quite a bit,” said Gary. The mill was re-started in 2013.
The mill operations are located on 76 acres. The sawmill is contained in a 52,000-square-foot building, and the planer mill operations are in a 32,000-square foot building. The company also has three Wellons double-track dry kilns on the premises. The mill currently employs 100 people and also provides work for about 50 loggers and truck drivers.
About 70% of the mill’s production consists of No. 2 and better studs for framing lumber, and another 15% is economy grade studs. The remaining 15% is lower grade material that is supplied to the pallet industry and also companies that use it in fingerjointing operations.
Lumber Products Help in Forest Renewal, Reducing Fire Danger
The Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest has been ravaged by the mountain pine beetle. The forest contains about 4 million acres of dead lodgepole pine. “We’re helping by cutting all the beetlekilled timber,” noted Gary. “It’s a huge fire danger. We get it out of there and it reduces the fire danger, and it allows the forest to regenerate and start anew.” The trees are 90% dead, according to Gary.
The only live trees in the forests are in those places that were harvested 30 years ago, now green with growing trees, he added. “There are new forests starting there.”
Saratoga buys timber from the national forest and also the federal Bureau of Land Management, the Wyoming State Forestry Division, and private forest owners. The Wyoming agency is an important partner to the company because its forests are located at lower altitude and enable the mill to be supplied with logs year-round.
The Saratoga Process Relies on McDonough Band Mills The company specifies tree-length logs in multiples of 9 feet and down to a 6 or 7-inch top. “We like seven better,” said Gary. A 47-foot log is an ideal length because the company’s log merchandiser can buck it into five pieces.
In the log yard, logs are prepared by going through a Nicholson debarker. The debarked logs then go to a six-saw bucking system built by West Coast Industrial. The company also has an auxiliary chop saw for merchandising bigger logs.
The mill is equipped with one head rig (larger logs) and a sharp chain (smaller logs) for processing logs, depending on diameter. Logs up to 12-13 inches in diameter are fed on a sharp chain to a McDonough twin vertical band mill with a slabber head on the front of it, and the head rig is optimized with a Baxley 3D scanner. The slabber head chippers square up two sides of the log, and then the McDonough twin band removes a 4-inch center cant from the middle. The center cant is routed directly to a gang saw that was built by Louisiana-Pacific. Depending on the diameter of the log, the side boards are conveyed to a McGehee linear board edger optimized with Nelson Brothers scanners.
Bigger logs go to a conventional McDonough 6-foot vertical band mill that also is equipped with a slabber on the front. The slabber chips one face of the log before the Corley carriage moves it through the McDonough to take a 2-inch cut and then a 4-inch cut. The log is turned on the carriage to finish the process of squaring it up. The flitches are routed to the edger, and the cant goes to the gang. Large cants also can be routed to a Prescott horizontal band mill to remove material prior to gang sawing. The carriage is optimized with Lewis scanners and controls.
The gang saw cuts material 12-inch and smaller into 2×4 and saws 20 pieces per minute. Material exiting the gang and edger both go to a West Coast Industrial 10-foot trim saw and then a Lunden stacking system.
All of the company’s lumber production is dried in Saratoga’s three Wellons dry kilns, and pallet lumber is heat-treated.
After drying, framing lumber and fingerjoint stock are sent to the planer mill. It is equipped with a Stetson-Ross 16-knife planer that surfaces four sides, and the lumber is stacked automatically.
Chips from the slabbers are supplied for fuel to a utility plant that produces electricity or to a mill that manufactures wood fuel pellets, which also takes the company’s saw dust.
All other scrap material is collected via conveyors and fed by vibrating conveyor into a Montgomery hog, and the grindings are conveyed automatically into storage silos. The grindings and bark are used to fuel the Wellons boiler that provides steam to heat the dry kilns.
The mill has a file shop, and the maintenance staff grinds and re-sharpens all cutting tools — chipping knives on the slabber heads, band blades and circular saw blades.
When Gary acquired the mill, the sharp chain system and head rig were still in place, but other machine centers had been dismantled and mothballed. Gary set about re-assembling the equipment and added the bucking system, the linear board edger, trimmer, and stackers.
Some equipment was purchased new, and some was acquired used and-or refurbished. The bucking system, for example was refurbished. Scott rebuilt the edger, although the lineal infeed and optimization was new.
Saratoga’s Lumber Market
Framing lumber is shipped to markets largely south and east. About 75% of the framing lumber production is sold to retail lumber yards and distributors, and about 25% to wholesalers. “We’re a lot closer than the West Coast (mills), so we get some good freight rates going east,” said Gary.
Lumber for the pallet industry is sold directly to pallet manufacturers as well as through brokers and to wholesalers. Most lower grade material goes directly to pallet manufacturers or lumber remanufacturers. “There are quite a few within 400 miles,” said Gary, in such states as Colorado, Nebraska, Montana and Idaho. The company even ships material into Texas.
Dead logs can contain a considerable amount of check or splitting, noted Gary. However, even with those logs it is possible to recover 4-foot sections of material that is stud grade and can be cut for the pallet industry and fingerjointing operations. One of the company’s main products for the pallet industry is a 4-foot 2×4 that can be used for stringers. The company also produces rough stock — economy 2×4 and 2×6, for example — that can be remanufactured into pallet components.
The company’s ESLP products have good “yardability,” said Clint. “They store very well,” he explained, with very little warpage.
Saratoga operates the only sawmill within about 300 miles, and Gary is involved in everything from buying timber to seeing that orders are shipped. In the process of restarting the mill, he also had to help rebuild the region’s logging infrastructure, which had withered with the decline of timber harvesting on federal lands. Not many young men are coming into the timber harvesting industry, he observed, and the logging infrastructure was very weak. He started an affiliated logging contracting business operated by his son, Garret, that harvests timber purchased by Saratoga.
Saratoga, which relies on contract truckers for delivering its lumber products, has been well received in Carbon County, where it is one of the largest employers. It offers workers six paid holidays, health and dental insurance, and a 401(k) retirement savings plan.
Saratoga employs a staff of professional foresters who direct timberland management programs according to the highest standards of silvicultural applications and best management practices. The company’s forest management services can produce a rate of forest growth that is up to four times faster than the rate of natural regeneration.