The aspen lumber mill in Mancos is being reborn after a massive fire destroyed it in 2017.
After months of negotiations, David Sitton purchased the 35-acre mill site from former operators Western Excelsior Corp. on Aug. 10. Sitton also owns Aspen Wall Wood, of Dolores.
The new business, named Aspen Wood Products, will continue producing a shredded aspen known as excelsior, Sitton said. The mill will employ 17 people full-time.
“Now that it’s real, we’re really excited and are striving toward start up in October,” he said. “I’ll breathe some relief when the first semi-load of baled excelsior leaves the plant.”
Crews have scraped the land clean, machinists are restoring milling equipment saved from the fire, and a warehouse spared from the fire is being expanded to become the new 9,000-square-foot mill.
It will be rebuilt on a smaller scale than the original Western Excelsior plant and will not produce the array of specialized erosion-control mats and wattle tubes that provided more than 100 jobs before the fire. Much of the expensive equipment needed for those products was destroyed in the fire.
The former mill’s aspen log inventory, industrial log peeler, truck scale and loader crane were also spared. Sitton said there are about 1,000 semitrailer loads of peeled aspen logs ready to be made into excelsior.
Aspen excelsior is in demand for decorative uses, packing material, cooler pads and acoustical boards.
“It is a natural product, so that makes it a popular option,” Sitton said. “We’re optimistic, and the orders are coming in.”
Other aspen products that will be produced by Aspen Wood Co. include aspen bark for landscaping and sawdust sold as a supplement for livestock feed.
For Phase II, Sitton plans to expand operations to make aspen wood pellets for stoves. A sawdust mixer is part of the mill, and his Dolores mill site has abundant stored sawdust to turn into pellets.
The previous Western Excelsior mill caused air-quality issues for nearby neighborhoods. Sitton said his smaller operation will have significant less impact, and there will be dust-collection systems.
Some employees of the former mill are expected to be hired for their experience and to help train new staff.
To make excelsior, truckloads of 38-foot aspen logs are brought in from the local forest, stacked to dry, then put through a giant log peeler. On the assembly line, a saw cuts the logs into pieces that are fed via a conveyor into five shredder machines. An industrial baler compacts the shredded aspen, and then it is loaded onto trucks.
Sitton’s Aspen Wall Wood plant produces paneling for homes and businesses. It also creates blue-stain paneling from beetle-killed ponderosa pine. He said he will expand his aspen logging operations to accommodate the restarted excelsior business in Mancos. The additional logging is expected to provide 10 to 12 timber and trucking jobs.
“We have a nice niche with the paneling. Now, with excelsior, we have two nice niches,” he said. “Logging is seeing an uptick in the area, and that’s good for forest health and the economy.”
The San Juan National Forest has been providing needed timber sales for his operations, he said, and the additional Mancos mill property will alleviate the limited storage space at his Dolores mill.
“The community has been very supportive, and our thank-you list is long. We are determined to make it work and see good potential,” Sitton said.