Lake County’s Valley fire-damaged trees flood lumber market

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Singed logs are piled high in stacks throughout Cobb Mountain, evidence of the massive amount of damage inflicted last year on forests by wildfires that blackened more than 170,000 acres in Lake County.

Hundreds of thousands of dead and dying conifers are slated to be turned into lumber but it’s unclear whether they’ll make the grade at a time when California’s market and sawmills are swamped with salvage logs, creating a glut and lowering their value. Most of the trees also are pine, which are less desirable and valuable than redwood or Douglas fir.

The surplus is being exacerbated by relatively low housing construction and an increase in imported lumber from Canada, industry officials say.

Trees that are unwanted or unsuitable for lumber are being chipped or turned into firewood. But huge numbers still need to be cleared from properties before rebuilding and rehabilitation can begin on the scorched land.

“What are we going to do with all this wood?” Greg Giusti, a timber adviser with the UC Extension Service, wondered. “That’s a $64,000 question.”

No figures were available for the amount of damaged timber that needs to be removed from private lands, but in the 3,500-acre Boggs Mountain Demonstration Forest alone, an estimated 250,000 trees with fire damage are being salvage logged, said Nicholas Kent, state forest manager at Boggs.

The glut adds to the many environmental struggles arising from three fires that last year burned through an estimated 20 percent of Lake County. The most damaging of the three, the Valley fire, killed four people, consumed 76,067 acres and destroyed more than 1,900 structures, including 1,281 homes. It was the third-most destructive fire in state history.

Statewide, wildfires last year burned through more than 10 million acres, the most land burned in the state in at least 25 years, according to figures kept by the National Interagency Fire Center.

California sawmills were still dealing with logs salvaged from 2014 forest fires when last year’s blazes erupted. The surplus strained the market.

Also strained are the state’s dwindling number of sawmills. Policy and legal constraints — triggered by decades of over-logging — have dramatically reduced timber harvests, especially on public lands. More than 80 mills have closed in California since the late 1990s, leaving about 30 in operation, said Mark Pawlicki, director of corporate affairs and sustainability at Sierra Pacific Industries. The company is the state’s largest timberland owner and producer of wood products. It has 11 mills in California and three in Washington, he said.

The only large industrial mills left on the North Coast are in Ukiah, Cloverdale, Scotia and Eureka, Giusti said.

“There is no industry left to speak of,” he said.

“I think there’s probably going to be more material available than any mill can absorb,” said Mike Jani, president of Mendocino Redwood Co.

There’s also not much of a market generally on the North Coast for pine, which comprises about two-thirds of the salvage logs being removed from Boggs Mountain. Pine does not have the weight-bearing potential of Douglas fir, so it has fewer construction uses and less value.

The pine cut on Boggs Mountain earns the state only between $1 and $20 per thousand board feet, depending on how difficult it is to harvest, Kent said. Douglas fir is bringing between $76 and $122 for the same amount of wood. The harvest on a portion of forest that contained 22 million board feet of predominately fir is expected to yield $1.8 million. Another 40 million board feet of mostly pine is expected to bring between $600,000 and $800,000 if the market holds at the higher end, Kent said. All the money will go back into rehabilitation of the forest, which lost 80 percent of live trees larger than 14 inches in diameter, measured at breast height.

Buyers of its timber include Sierra Pacific and Mendocino Forest Products. A third buyer backed out of its purchase, saying it was unable to make a profit on its bid.

But the market is in flux and there has been some interest shown by mills in Oregon, Kent said. However, the farther the logs must be transported, the less profit the forest can earn for its work, he said.

“It’s a long, expensive haul,” Kent said.

If it was private land, Boggs would have another option — exporting out of the country. But state and federal laws prohibit the export of whole logs harvested on public lands or by logging corporations that harvest from both private and public lands. The laws are aimed at supporting domestic jobs that turn logs into wood products.

Some of the logs being harvested from private land are being exported to China, which in 2014 purchased 85 percent of logs exported from the United States, according to the USDA.

Forester Galen Bullock said 75 percent to 80 percent of the million board feet he has harvested so far for private owners in Lake County will be exported.

“Without the export market, we would be hard pressed to sell our pine,” he said. “The domestic sawmills are pretty full.”

With prices so low, landowners with relatively few trees to salvage are getting almost nothing for their trees, because the cost of removing them could exceed their value, Bullock said.

“It’s tough to get everyone paid” when the value of the trees is so low, he said.

Some agencies, like PG&E and Caltrans, are even more hard-pressed to get rid of the trees they’ve cut along roads and utility right of ways. They’re leaving oak rounds suitable for firewood along roads for local residents and chipping some wood to use for erosion control. They’re not allowed to sell logs, so many of the ones that could be turned into lumber or used for woodworking projects are being transported to the former Hoberg’s Resort, which was leveled by the fires. The resort’s owners have obtained a permit to set up a portable mill and will be using some of the Douglas fir to rebuild and giving away or selling usable pine, said Rob Muelrath, a spokesman for the land owners. Some is being donated to area schools, he said.

If the timber isn’t harvested soon, it will have no use at all. Pine deteriorates more quickly than fir or redwood and must be harvested within six months or it takes on a blue stain, decreasing its value by half, Pawlicki said.

Soon after, insects attack, eliminating any value the trees might had, Jani said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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