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A Portrait of Southeast Alaska’s Sawmills

Nov 30, 2017 | Agriculture, Magazine, Manufacturing

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

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, dead, downed, and previously used wood that is purchased from the Tongass National Forest micro-sale program and private parties. He only cuts standing trees if they are dead, he says, and this practice is a part of his brand he intends to always keep.

From Asia to the Middle East; throughout Europe, Australia, and New Zealand; and across the United States, Cole says he has shipped his products to customers in 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, Swedish nyckelharpas, and 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 worked stints in the oil patch, as a physical therapist, and 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 where he would split out old Spruce and make guitar-binding wooden billets that he called “music wood.” Cole 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 chainsaw, and an old pickup truck.

And that’s where it started. A family-owned business since its inception, from the onset Cole completely involved his wife and kids in Alaska Specialty Woods as officers, owners, and employees. Everyone did everything from carrying wood to splitting guitar blocks. After their first month in business, they shipped a cord of wood to their first customer and received a check—for $127. It was a huge disappointment, Cole says, but they got a quick lesson in the tonewood timber sector and started to learn what makes sellable material.

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Since then, Cole has grown the company slowly, eventually buying a log truck, upgrading equipment as market demands dictated the need, taking a few steps forward, and then a few steps back. Two years ago, he began operating out of a 15,000-square-foot facility, a measure of success he attributes to patience, hard work, word of mouth, and repeat customers. Producing a custom retail product has also been an advantage, resulting in steadier work than those sawmills that target high-production manufacturers. Along the way, he has added some of the biggest names in the wood music instrument to his portfolio including Santa Cruz Guitar Company, Lowden Guitars in Ireland, Bedell Guitars, and Gibson Original Acoustic Instruments.

Southeast has had few industrial-scale timber harvests in the Tongass for more than two decades, when the transition from old-growth logging began in the mid-1990s and the Sitka and Ketchikan pulp mills closed. Today, there is one example of an industrial-scale timber harvest and Viking Lumber in Klawock is the main user. Sealaska Timber Corporation and Alcan Forest Products also export round log timber.

Cole is one of several small sawmill operators in Southeast who are working to adapt to dramatic changes in the region’s logging industry over the past twenty years while also remaining a part of what was one of the region’s most viable sources of economic development.

It is difficult to know the exactly how many operating micro sawmills are in Southeast. By 2015, only a single mid-size sawmill and a half-dozen micro mills still survived in the region when the Forest Service 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 Corporation 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 not promising: employment in the timber industry is still expected to decline in the 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 pending Forest Service Tongass management plan, which phases out cutting of old-growth timber and encourages only cutting young, new growth timber, will reduce—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, constraining supply to Viking Lumber and potential new mills. The poor outlook for the future timber economy is also a disincentive for continued participation in the Southeast industry.

The federal government controls 97 percent of the resources, and the communities are surrounded by water and wooded areas, which limits access to the resources, says Robert Venables, executive director of the Southeast Conference. “It only makes sense to let these communities be able to access the resource for survival and sustainability.” 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 facilitates conference efforts 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.

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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.”

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 has been working in the timber industry since before the age of ten.

His first memories as a young boy in Sweet Home, Oregon, a logging town adjacent to the Willamette National Forest, are of helping with small chores around logging camps and riding in log trucks owned by his father Sam, 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 growing and pruning in 4-H forestry and planted hundreds of trees. As a teenager, he took on more responsibility, building fire trails to protect the timber and preparing the ground for planting next year’s crop.

The third generation of loggers in his family, eighteen-year-old Tyler moved to Alaska in the late 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 crew, “If you want to keep working, come with us.” A group of about twenty employees followed them to Alaska 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 a timber sale of about 30 million board feet—then considered small—waiting to be logged.

After three years at St. John the Baptist Bay, the logging camp was moved to Zarembo Island, between Petersburg and Wrangell. Tyler worked there for twelve years before moving his wife Susan and two young sons Ryan and Bryce to Hoonah in 1982. The couple built their first cabin from Sitka Spruce and they still use it as a guest cabin.

The family business was renamed Whitestone Logging, and he worked under his cousin Bud Stewart for another fourteen years. When it was sold, the new owner decided to start a small sawmill operation to build on the logging business, which Tyler ran.

His sons Ryan and Bryce are the fourth generation of Tylers to grow up around the timber industry. Bryce still lives in Hoonah and has worked 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, paneling, siding, decking, and trim, all produced from timber that comes right from his backyard. In addition to local private projects, the sawmill also pro-cesses wood for larger commercial customers in Juneau that include the Soboleff Center, Mt. Roberts Tram, Heritage Coffee Shop, Menden-hall 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 the voice of this message. “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 and is partially funded by The Nature Conservancy and Sealaska, a regional Native corporation with large timber holdings that is responsible for about two-thirds of industry activity in the region.

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 go do it,’” and Tyler did. “I didn’t know anything about sawmilling, but I liked building with wood and was eager to take the challenge and see what products could be manufactured from our local timber supply,” Tyler says, looking back.

In 2003, as Whitestone Logging operations began slowing down, he decided to buy the mill operations to help preserve the forest industry jobs in Hoonah. Today, Tyler oversees day-to-day operations. Susan, who is equally involved in the business, is responsible for administration, marketing, product development, and working with customers on cabin interior design and remodels.

What sets Icy Straits Lumber apart from other small sawmill operators is that it offers primary and secondary manufacturing. From the tree stump to the end user, the sawmill is involved every step of the way, from procuring the timber to sawing, sorting, kiln drying, and manufacturing the finished products before delivering them to the customer.

Working alongside his team of about ten employees, there is nothing Tyler will not do to help make the enterprise thrive, ranging from cutting trees, hauling logs, and running the equipment to delivering products to customers.

“It takes a good team to make all of this happen,” Tyler says. “We are fortunate to have employees who care and want to continue living a remote lifestyle, work close to home, and provide for their families.”

It is a profession that requires hands-on technical abilities and creative skills—and a lot of long hours and demanding physical work that’s often in a cold, wet, slippery forest. Once the logs are out of the forest, Tyler, Susan, and other employees get to work finding ways to produce new products from young-growth trees that average between 35 and 50 years old. Old-growth trees in the Tongass are typically about 150 years old.

Tyler prides himself in maximizing selected tree timber sales, whether they are blown down from lot development or dead standing trees, and he advocates for proper management of the resources. Beyond that, he stays out of the time-consuming politics surrounding the industry. “We just want to keep working to create jobs and produce local wood products that go into homes and businesses in Southeast Alaska,” he says.

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

A lifetime later, facing seventy and still in the timber industry after fifty years, every day is still an exciting new adventure, just as it was the first time Tyler‘s father lifted him up into the front seat of a logging truck.

He says he enjoys the remote lifestyle and being surrounded by a community whose lives pivot around the timber industry. Running the business can be a test of survival, Tyler says, but he is proud of the fact that he and his wife have made something from nothing. “It is the toughest, meanest thing we’ve ever tried to do in our lives, but I love the work.”

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