As truckloads of logs arrive at the newly opened IronWood mill near Dolores, trucks with stacks of veneer sheets leave for plywood factories.
In between, ponderosa pine trees from the San Juan National Forest are rolled through a large mill that is teeming with activity and newly hired employees.
“We’re the first step in the manufacturing of plywood,” said IronWood Group CEO Jeff Bunnell during a recent tour. “This county has been very supportive and welcoming.”
His team brought the mill site on County Road T back to life. It was previously the Montezuma Plywood Co. plant, which closed more than 40 years ago.
“It’s been a project. We first hauled out 80 yards of pigeon crap from the old buildings, then remodeled them,” he said.
After meeting with local forest officials and seeing the potential timber market, Bunnell and his lumberjack partners relocated from Oregon, where they had became frustrated with “every timber sale being challenged in court.”
After arriving in April, IronWood refurbished the 131,000-square-foot warehouse and installed a modern mill. IronWood recently purchased the mill site property for $1.4 million, according to the Montezuma County Assessor’s Office.
So far, 51 mill workers have been hired for 10-hour shifts, and there is a logging crew of five.
“We’re looking to hire 25 more for a second shift,” said IronWood Administration Director Sharee Bistline. Applications are being accepted at the Southwest Colorado Workforce Center, 2208 E. Main St. in Cortez.
The expansion has been slowed down, though, because shipment of some mill equipment was delayed after ports in Asia closed to limit the spread of the coronavirus, company officials said.
After the mill is built out, more staff will be needed, she said. Total employment will reach more than 100 people in jobs paying $13 to $20 per hour.
Sections of logs are fed into the mill by a front-end loader, a process that will be automated when final construction is complete. The logs are spun through a debarker, then through a lathe that peels them into thin veneer sheets that are cut and stacked, said plant manager Mike Cyphert.
“We’re ramping up to full capacity and efficiency,” he said. “Safety is always paramount.”
At full production, 10 truck loads of veneer will be produced every 10-hour shift.
The bark and cuttings drop onto a conveyor belt, then go through a pellet mill. The wood pellets are sold for the industrial power market.
Locals were grateful for the full-time, year-round job opportunity.
“I enjoy the production part of it, learning different skills, working with my hands,” said lathe operator Cristy Birch. “We’re like a big family. Before this job, I was cleaning houses.”
“It’s fast-paced, physical work that is appealing for our crew,” said day shift supervisor Daniel Korallus.
IronWood’s veneer is an untreated wood sheet used in the plywood manufacturing process. IronWood trucks the material to Grand Junction via U.S. Highway 491, where it is loaded on freight trains to West Coast plywood factories.
“Trucking freight is our biggest cost,” Bunnell said. “This area needs a rail line.”
Another potential rail-loading site is at Thompson Springs, Utah, along Interstate 70 north of Moab. Trucking to Gallup, New Mexico, is not feasible because of road conditions and stricter hauling regulations, Bunnell said.
Construction of a railroad spur between Gallup and Farmington through the Navajo Nation is being considered, but it would be at least a decade away from construction, said a Region 9 Economic Development official.
Timber sales for IronWood have been secured from the San Juan National Forest, which has been seeking increased commercial logging to reduce overgrown forests at risk for large wildfires and beetle kill. The mill yard is filling with stacked timber ready to be processed.
“We’re glad to be here providing jobs, and importantly, we’re also helping to improve forest health in the area,” said IronWood CFO Mark Hartman.
Currently, the company’s loggers are bringing in timber from Haycamp Mesa and Lost Turkey between Dolores and Mancos. The mechanized logging method thins out the overgrown forest, and there is no clear-cutting.
IronWood is part of a resurgence in logging in the area. Montrose Forest Products recently picked up ponderosa pine sales in the San Juan National Forest to ship to their Montrose lumber mill.
Aspen Wood Products has rebuilt the mill destroyed by fire in Mancos, and the plant is again producing excelsior products from locally logged aspen.
“We’re proud to have them here,” said Montezuma County Commissioner Keenan Ertel.