By Laura Clark
Ukiah Daily Journal
November 8, 1999

After being closed for almost five years, logs once again are spinning, bucksaws are cutting and enthusiasm is running high inside the Willits sawmill, where nothing remains dormant anymore.

Mendocino Redwood Company recently reopened the mill that was previously owned by Louisiana-Pacific. In doing so, not only did the company put 25 people to work, but it is utilizing the natural resources inside its 230,000 acres of cut-over timberland.

Tanoak, not the fairest tree of them all, is growing in amongst the redwoods and Douglas firs, and accounts for 25 percent of the standing merchantable volume on MRC lands. If left alone it will continue to spread, dominating the forest. This native species is aggressive, grows fast and crowds out the more valuable redwoods and firs.

Mendocino Redwood Company President Sandy Dean explained that the excessive amount of tanoak is the result of a century of over-logging. Before harvesting began in 1850, the forest was "magnificent," Dean said.

One way to restore the conifer forest to a "healthy restocked forest 30 or 40 years from now," Dean said, is to "create a commercially viable product for the tanoak." He noted that after the company removes a tanoak it replants with a conifer, and added that MRC doesn't want to get rid of all the tanoak, just reduce the amount to about 15 percent.

And though tanoak may be one of the lesser desired trees in the forest, judging by the product samples produced, when transformed into hardwood floors, these not-so-straight, bumpy, tanoak logs may turn out to be a cut above the rest.

"I think this is a creative response to experienced difficulties in a beleaguered industry," Willits City Manager Gordon Logan said. "They are going to take oak that people cut up for firewood and turn it into a productive product."

About 13,000 tons of saw-log quality tanoak will be used for hardwood flooring and another estimated 5,000 cords of wood that won't "make the cut" for flooring will be used for firewood, said Vern Ingham, hardwood manufacturing manager at Mendocino Forest Products.

"The way they are marketing the log at the sawmill, they are identifying that portion of the log suitable for manufacturing in the sawmill. The balance of the resource, with the exception of wood chips and sawdust, is being manufactured as firewood. This allows them to use 100 percent of their natural resources," Willits Mayor Denny McEntire said.

McEntire said he thinks it's great the mill is open again. "We certainly are encouraging the new jobs it brings to Willits. We welcome Mendocino Forest Products (an affiliate of MRC) for helping the local economy by adding those jobs."

Mike Pires was unemployed for about four months, but not anymore. He said he loves working at Mendocino Redwood Company. Not only does he like "the atmosphere" but also "the people he works with."

"We have organized the crew into what's known as self-directed work teams," Ingham said. "They control their own situations at their end. They set up production guidelines, quality control, their attendance, shift schedules, etc. They pretty much do everything."

He said there are four teams and the teams trade positions, so they can learn everything that's going on at the mill. "The sawmill is such a fluid flow of material and it's important that everyone knows what is going on, up stream and down stream," Ingham said.

MRC headrig sawyer Tom Thies, who was out of the mill business for nine years, is glad to be back. He said he likes the team concept. "It gives an employee more incentive to do a good job. We can make our own decisions and we are more flexible in the workplace and more involved in the project."

With 30 years experience at various other mills, Thies said he has never milled oak before. "We are really committed to the tanoak project," he said. "One reason is because it's never been done successfully before and it's a challenge. We are going to do it successfully - that's our goal and we are going to reach it," he said.

"This is the first large-scale mill dedicated completely to the manufacturing of tanoak," Ingham said.

"People have successfully milled tanoak into beautiful finished products in small quantities," Dean said. "But what we are doing here is applying enough resources to attempt to do this on a commercial scale."

Dean credited company consultant Dave Kaney with giving MRC "the confidence to proceed with the pilot project."

"We took the idea and thoroughly studied it and got to the point where we had the confidence to commit the capital that was required to initiate the pilot project," Dean said.

More than $1 million is being invested into the modification and start-up of the mill and remanufacturing of the facility, he said.

After the wood is predried in a controlled temperature atmosphere for 45 days at the Willits mill, it will go to the Ukiah mill where it will be kiln dried for 12 to 15 days. Then it will be ready for floor manufacturing, which will also be done at the Ukiah mill.

Dean said a large portion of the crew at the Willits mill will go to Ukiah to run the pilot program. Once through, he said about half the crew will stay in Ukiah and train a larger crew, and the other half will return to the Willits mill and train a larger crew for that mill.

So in addition to the crew of 25 working now, the company plans to employ another 35 people soon. If things go as planned, the hardwood flooring should be available by early 2000.

Copyright 1999 Ukiah Daily Journal