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An Intimate Portrait of Southeast Alaska’s Sawmills

Despite challenges family-owned, boutique sawmills remain devoted to timber life


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It’s that one log. From that one tree. Slice it open and it cuts like butter. Straight grain, pointed right to the sky, and an even texture from the honey and gray skin to the heart of the trunk that says, “We are going to make beautiful music together.”

“You can have a whole pile of logs,” Brent Cole says from his home on Prince of Wales Island, “and then you find that one—so straight and so even—that’s what turns me on about what I get to do every day.”

Cole is founder, owner, and president of Alaska Specialty Woods, a boutique sawmill in Craig that specializes in producing acoustical soundboards from 100 percent salvaged, downed wood that is purchased from the Tongass National Forest micro-sale program. He only cuts standing trees if they are dead, he says. This practice is part of his brand he intends to maintain always.

From Asia to the Middle East, throughout Europe, and across the United States, Cole says he has shipped his products to more than seventy-five countries worldwide.

“If it’s acoustic, we’ve produced a soundboard for it,” including wooden instruments that range from guitars, violins, and pianos to hammered and mountain dulcimers, Native American flutes, and Swedish nyckelharpas to European lutes and Greek bouzoukis.

Originally from the Midwest, and after deciding he did not want to buy his father’s turkey farm, Cole worked his way west with plans of becoming a taxidermist in Alaska before settling on Prince of Wales Island in 1987. With some trade school and on-the-job-training, he landed work stints in the oil patch, as a physical therapist, then running a restaurant.

When Cole went to look at a house for rent, he began talking to the owner who was moving south. He had a shop in which he would get old spruce, split it out, and make guitar-binding wooden billets that he called “music wood.” He was intrigued with the concept and the product but needed to make a living and spent the next nine years working for the Phoenix Logging Company in Klawock until he decided he wanted to work for himself. He had property with a tree on it, a mallet, a worn out chain saw, and an old pickup truck.

And that’s where it started. A family-owned business since its inception, from the onset Cole involved his wife and kids in Alaska Specialty Woods as officers, owners, and employees, though everyone did everything from carrying wood to splitting guitar blocks until, after one month, they shipped a cord of wood to their first customer and received their first check—for $127. It was a huge disappointment, Cole says, but they got a quick lesson in the timber industry and how not to run a business.

 

Politics, Industry Changes Lead to Uncertainty for Small Operations

The sawmill business has changed a lot since then, as have the timber industry and resource development trends. Alaska Specialty Woods has grown slowly, eventually buying a log truck, upgrading equipment as market demand dictated, taking a few steps forward, then a few steps back. Two years ago, Cole began operating out of a 15,000-square-foot facility, a measurement of success he attributes to patience, hard work, word-of-mouth, and repeat customers. Producing a custom retail product has also been advantageous, resulting in steadier work than sawmills that target high-production manufacturers. Along the way, Cole added some of the biggest names in the wood music instrument industry to his portfolio including Santa Cruz Guitar Company, Lowden Guitars in Ireland, Bedell Guitars, and Gibson Original Acoustic Instruments.

Southeast Alaska has not had an industrial-scale timber harvest in the Tongass for more than two decades when the transition from old-growth logging began in the mid-1990s after the Sitka and Ketchikan pulp mills closed.

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Cole is one of several small sawmill operators in Southeast working to adapt to dramatic changes in the region’s logging industry that have occurred over the past twenty years, while he also continues to remain a part of what was one of the region’s most viable industries.

It is difficult to know exactly how many operating micro-sawmills there are in Southeast. By 2015, only a single mid-size sawmill and a half-dozen micro-mills still survived in the region, and the Forest Service subsequently announced a fifteen-year transition after which only 5 million board feet of mature, old-growth timber would be available annually. According to the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development database, there are forty-nine active business licenses for forestry in Southeast, though several are likely firewood companies and larger logging operations such as Sealaska Timber Company and Viking Lumber.

Today, timber workforce earnings are $17.3 million in the region. While that is a significant figure, the number of board feet harvested annually has fallen by 96 percent from peak levels in the 1990s, according to the Southeast Conference Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for 2016 to 2020. Although the industry’s contribution is still measurable, the future is uncertain: employment in the timber industry is still expected to decline in upcoming years, due to the uncertainty of the supply of timber and the resulting lack of investment in infrastructure, equipment, and personnel.

The organization attributes this to several factors. The Forest Service’s pending Tongass Transition Plan to young growth timber will reduce, and then terminate, access to old-growth timber, which has been the mainstay of industry sales. Litigation over almost every timber sale has made log deliveries to Viking Lumber on Prince of Wales Island—the last mid-size sawmill in the region—uncertain and is a barrier to potential new mills obtaining the financing needed to join the Southeast industry. Timber available for sale is often not economically feasible, thereby constraining supply to Viking Lumber and potential new mills. And the poor outlook for future economic timber is a disincentive for continued participation in the Southeast timber industry.

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Robert Venables.

The federal government controls 97 percent of the resources and the communities are surrounded by water and wooded areas, which limits access to those resources, Robert Venables, executive director of the Southeast Conference says. “It only makes sense to let these communities be able to access the resource for survival and sustainability,” and the economic development organization is trying to support core opportunities for the timber industry to continue in the region, while working with communities to slowly fill the gap the industry has left.

The politics surrounding the timber industry in Southeast continues to be the “poster child” for grassroots debate in Southeast, bringing out divisive, unproductive arguments, Venables says. As the region’s economic development organization, Venables directs the conference to focus on collective interests of the residents, communities, and businesses in Southeast, taking an active role in comprehensive planning and regional resource management through the voice of the membership and its timber committee.

 

Creating Sustainability in Tongass

All sides of the issue have valid points, though few of them are science based or give enough validity to local input. “Clear cut or leave it untouched—this is the political football that is passed back and forth and it’s not working,” Venables says, adding that the Tongass has not been managed with a sustainable harvest approach in a very long time—if ever. “The many mandates placed on the timber industry and other user groups like renewable energy developers can make the simplest of projects uneconomical very quickly.”

“There is not a balanced, sustainable approach to managing our resources in the region. There is a concerted effort by many who want to see the Tongass preserved in a picture perfect, ideological way, but it’s a myth to believe it’s going to stay that way. It is large enough that a part can stay that way, but there is enough mass for the timber industry to survive, as well—for small family businesses to participate in the industry and allow them to control their lives and well-being, to be able to create income streams for themselves and their families.” There is a concerted effort by many who want to see the Tongass preserved in a picture perfect, ideological way, but it’s a myth to believe it’s going to stay that way. It is large enough that a part can stay that way, but there is enough mass for the timber industry to survive, as well—for small family businesses to participate in the industry and allow them to control their lives and well-being, to be able to create income streams for themselves and their families.”

As part of its federal mandate to participate in resource management issues, and in response to the region’s needs, the Southeast Conference has made the timber industry and “providing an adequate, economic, and dependable supply of timber from the Tongass National Forest to regional timber operators” one of its top priorities. This includes helping stabilize the regional timber industry, working with the Forest Service to direct federal contracts toward locally-owned businesses, supporting small-scale manufacturing of wood products in the region, advocating for old-growth harvest until a young-growth supply is adequate, and investing in community-based workforce development.

 

A Family Affair

Wes Tyler started working in the timber industry before he turned ten.

His first memories as a young boy in Sweet Home, Oregon, a logging town adjacent to the Willamette National Forest, are of riding in log trucks with his father Samuel, a well-known log loader operator. After loading fallen logs onto the truck, they would haul them down the mountain to the mills. On other days, he would take Tyler into the woods to watch the men move huge machines and gigantic logs.

Every day in the woods was an exciting adventure. As Tyler got a bit older, he was tasked with cleaning up around camp and greasing and fueling the equipment so it would be ready to go the next morning. He learned all about trees in 4-H. As a teenager, he worked on building fire trenches to protect the timber and prepared the ground for planting next year’s timber crop.

The fourth generation of loggers in his family, sixty-nine-year-old Tyler moved to Alaska in the 1960s when his father and uncles saw an ad that read “Loggers Needed in Alaska.” After scouting Southeast, they flew home, packed up everything, and told their friends, “If you want to keep working, come with us.” A group of about twenty followed them to work for Tyler Brothers Logging. They set up camp at St. John the Baptist Bay, twenty-two miles north of Sitka, where there was 30 million board feet of timber waiting to be logged.

Following twelve years of logging in Petersburg, then St. John Harbor in Wrangell for another twelve, he and his wife Susan arrived in Hoonah in 1982. The family business was renamed Whitestone Logging and he worked under his cousin Bud Stewart for thirty-four years before taking over the sawmill portion.

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Today, his sons Ryan and Bryce are the fifth generation of loggers in the family; Bryce lives in Hoonah and often works with Tyler at the family business Icy Straits Lumber and Milling, a small sawmill in Hoonah that produces everything from high value-added woodworking products such as clocks, paper weights, and novelty signs to wood log homes, all produced from scrap timber that comes right from his backyard. In addition to local private projects, the sawmill also processes wood for larger customers in the Juneau area such as the Soboleff Center, Mount Roberts Tram, Heritage Coffee Shop, Mendenhall Glacier Gift Shop, State and Forest Service cabins, picnic shelters, and tables.

Tyler’s story is a textbook case of how economic development and protecting the resource can come together, and he is frequently showcased to deliver this message in the region. Shades of Green: Stories of Life and Land in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest was produced by the Forest Service and features Tyler and his sawmill as a local success story. Start Your Legacy is another video that features Icy Straits Lumber. It is funded by The Nature Conservancy and Sealaska, a regional Native corporation with large timber holdings that is responsible for about two-thirds of the region’s timber activities.

In 1996, as the timber industry was being decimated, Tyler’s boss said to him: “We need to do something else to preserve the Tongass and maintain some jobs.”

They set up a small sawmill. “He pointed at me and said, ‘You got to do it.’” And Tyler did. “I didn’t know anything about it, but I liked wood,” he says, looking back. In 2002, with not much more than hope and a chainsaw attachment, the pair went off on their own with a simple business plan: haul everything away and sell it. Susan handles administrative functions and marketing and has been equally involved in the business.

“From the tree stump to the store,” Tyler says, there is not anything he does not do to help make the enterprise thrive. “I’m still cutting trees, hauling logs, running all the equipment, and delivering the products we sell to our customers.”

It is a profession that requires technical and creative skills—and a lot of long hours and demanding physical work in cold, wet, slippery forests. Once the wood is out of the forest, Tyler, Susan, and other employees sit down and figure out what can be made with the timber.

“We are always looking out for new things we can do with the wood that comes from young growth trees,” which are an average age of 150 years old, Tyler says—young when compared to old growth timber that is commonly 500 years old.

Tyler prides himself on maximizing select tree timber sales, whether they are blow down sales or dead standing trees—and advocates for proper management of the resource—but beyond that stays out of the politics surrounding the industry for one very simple reason: “We don’t have time.”

As Icy Straits moves into its second decade of operation, the Tylers continue to think of new ways to cut out a livelihood for themselves, their family, and other members of the community that also offers a lifestyle based on professional independence and allows them to live off the land and to call one of the most beautiful spots on the planet home.

A lifetime later, Tyler says, “We are happy and comfortable. If we wanted to make money, we would go work with the Forest Service where the wages are higher and the risks are fewer.” Facing seventy years of age, after fifty years in the industry, every day is still an exciting new adventure; just as it was the first time his father lifted him up into the front seat of a logging truck.

“There’s been some good luck and some bad luck; we never know what the next day brings, there are always new risks,” Tyler says. But if someone told him they were thinking of starting a small sawmill, along with some advice, he would tell them to make sure they have a source of wood, then “Do it!”


This article first appeared in the November 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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