Timber Tour examines wood products, supply

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The annual Timber Tour took people to the site of the Glacier Rim Fire on Thursday, October 22, north of Columbia Falls. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Glacier Rim Fire and SmartLam provide learning environment

The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce’s month-long celebration of manufacturing in the Flathead ended where manufacturing began in the Flathead — with its timber industry.

The 2015 Timber Tour took place Thursday, and highlighted the resiliency of the industry, both in the field, where participants saw the result of the Glacier Rim Fire north of Columbia Falls, and in the manufacturing process itself — in this case at the SmartLam plant in Columbia Falls, where technology has responded to the market with an all-new product, cross-laminated timber.

Fresh on everyone’s minds, coming out of the major forest fire season of 2015, was the fragility of the natural resource that fuels not just fires but also the local timber industry.

Glacier Rim was the first notable fire of the year, beginning on June 27 and consuming about 100 acres, but it was merely a precursor to the big fire season that followed. U.S. Forest Service members were the guides for this part of the tour, waiting as two school buses and a caravan of cars unloaded into a parking lot at the base of a burnt hillside.

Michele Draggoo, environmental planning coordinator for Flathead National Forest, described the damage from the fire in the same area in 2003 and the actions that followed. The burn in 2003 was part of the Roberts Fire that sprinted through 52,000 acres. The agency made a proposal the next year to salvage what it could from the burned timberland and was able to extract timber from about 1,300 acres of the burned area near Glacier Rim, according to Draggoo.

Draggoo said timber was not harvested from the Glacier Rim site itself because of the location.

“We’re in the Wild and Scenic river corridor so we have to maintain those values,” Draggoo said. The hillsides in the Glacier Rim area are also too steep to access with machinery, she said. What wasn’t harvested eventually became the fuel for the fire that kicked up in June.

Planning Staff Officer Rob Carlin said the Forest Service is about 90 percent sure that the Glacier Rim Fire was human-caused. Several fires this year were caused by some sort of human activity.

Carlin said the Forest Service is now assessing the suitability of various burned areas for salvage timber harvesting, as well as applying for special funding to move forward with the harvest.

“We have to understand the conditions before we can take any action,” he said, adding that the assessments should be completed within the next few weeks.

Assistant Forest Fire Management Officer Manny Mendoza described the conditions that led to the Glacier Rim Fire. He said this year’s June was the driest and hottest on record, with temperatures reaching 95 degrees for the four days leading up to the fire.

“We thought it would be a strong fire season, and it was,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza said dead standing and fallen trees contributed to the fire while ground fuels were burning so hot that it was difficult to get crews in to work. By July 4, fire crews had contained the fire, he said.

In total, the 100-acre Glacier Rim Fire cost the U.S. Forest Service about $1.5 million. That was relatively small compared to the Thompson-Divide Complex Fire that burned more than 21,000 acres and cost more than $8.5 million along the southern edge of Glacier National Park.

Draggoo said the Flathead Forest is looking to salvage burned timber from the 70,000-acre Bear Creek Fire area near Spotted Bear. Depending on the species of tree, the agency has up to three years to salvage burned wood before it is no longer merchantable. Salvage sales won’t happen until the Forest Service completes an analysis and prepares for litigation from environmental groups.

“If we can get the analysis done in a year, we’re good to go,” she said. “It certainly benefits the local industry because we’re providing supply and it gets money back to the Treasury, which we can use to replant.”

Earlier, the timber tour visited the SmartLam facility in Columbia Falls. SmartLam is the only facility in the United States that produces cross-laminated timber; two have also popped up in Canada. Kalispell Chamber of Commerce President Joe Unterreiner led about 60 people into the 40,000-square-foot Smart Lam facility while production had halted.

Plant Manager Scott Nagel presented the early stages of production.

“We’ve learned a lot in three and a half years,” Nagel said. “[Our product] is becoming very popular.”

The boards are checked for imperfections and planed down to size. The pieces that don’t make it to production are used to heat the facility, which boasts a zero waste output.

The ends of each board are then cut into joints, glued together and pressed between 300 and 600 pounds of pressure per square inch. Boards are then stacked horizontally and vertically into typically three to nine layers. Each layer of boards gets a layer of glue before the top board is pressed down at 3,000 pounds per square inch. After allowing the glue to cure for 12-24 hours, the panel is cut to shape.

At its peak of orders, SmartLam’s lumber yard runs through about a million board feet of lumber a month, entirely from F. H. Stoltze Land and Lumber. Production has grown so much in the last two years that SmartLam is lining up to build a second facility in Columbia Falls, providing the capacity to increase production four times and possibly doubling the 36 employee count.

The multi-layered panels built at SmartLam have been shipped out to oilfields for stabilizing roads and staging machinery. They’re lighter and more easily transported than steel and concrete, and may soon become a viable option for home and commercial building material as well.

The panels are made entirely of wood, but present about the same amount of fire protection as steel and drywall, said Dennis Krueger, sales manager at SmartLam.

“Wood is very predictable on how it burns, and if you hold a lighter to a log it’s not going to burn unless there’s kindling beneath it,” he said. “You can design a CLT [cross-laminated timber] for a one-, two- or three-hour rating.”

Cross-laminated paneling has been used in Europe and Canada, including a 42-story office building. SmartLam’s panels are currently being tested before they can be certified for building material. The company leaders could know as soon as a week if they’re able to expand their product line to the housing market.

“The future is very bright,” Krueger said. “You’re going to see companies in the U.S. maximize their timber usage because we can use small logs that don’t usually make it to market.”

For more information on SmartLam and cross-laminated timber, visit smartlam.com.

Reporter Seaborn Larson may be reached at 758-4441 or by email at slarson@dailyinterlake.com.

Daya Haag of Columbia Falls takes notes on the annual Timber Tour on Thursday, October 22, at SmartLAM in Columbia Falls. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)


Attendees on the annual Timber Tour walks past the Cross Laminated Timber display at SmartLAM on Thursday, October 22, in Columbia Falls. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)


Rob Davies of the Flathead National Forest addresses the crowd gathered for part two of the annual Timber Tour on Thursday, October 22, at Glacier Rim north of Columbia Falls. Ninety people signed up for the tour which took two bus loads to SmartLAM and the Flathead National Forest. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)


A picnic table on display at SmartLAM as part of the annual Timber Tour on Thursday, October 22, in Columbia Falls. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

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