JOHN DAY – Grant County residents and an array of federal, state and local officials took a peek into the future last week, touring the new pellet-fuel plant at Malheur Lumber Company.

The tours were part of an open house hosted by the company and Malheur National Forest – an event that took place as construction workers pressed ahead with their tasks. The plant is expected to begin producing pellets and bricks in December.

Doug Gochnour, MNF supervisor, called the plant “a new tool” that will support the community through jobs, but also help the Forest Service clear out the backlog of fuels that has built up on the public lands.

He noted that there are three things that drive wildfires: topography, weather and fuels.

“We can’t do much about the first two.” he said, “What we can affect is the fuels.”

He lauded the combination of state, federal, county and private investment that has gone into the plant’s creation. The Forest Service secured a $5 million stimulus grant to make the plant a reality, with key assistance coming from the state’s economic development arm, Business Oregon.

Teresa Raaf, tapped to be acting supervisor after Gochnour retires in December, thanked the community for the support it has shown. She called the plant an exciting opportunity to move some of the fuels out of the woods and create jobs at the same time.

“There’s a lot of material out there that isn’t sawlog caliber,” she said.

John Shelk, managing partner of Ochoco Lumber, Malheur Lumber’s parent company, noted the evolution he’s seen on the forest over the past 41 years.

He said the John Day mill, built 27 years ago to handle logs averaging 24-25 inches in diameter, has been adapted over the years to handle the shrinking log size coming off the federal forests. Currently, he said, the average top diameter is 11.5 to 12 inches.

He said that while the sawmill doesn’t take anything smaller than an 8-inch top now, the pellet plant will change that. The new facility will use smaller trees, and even the parts not suitable for pellets or fuel “bricks” will be turned into hog fuel.

“You’ve heard the pork producers talk about using everything but the squeal – Well, we’re getting awfully close to that,” Shelk said.

Bear Mountain Forest Products will market bricks and pellets created at the John Day site, and some of the pellets also will fuel local pellet boilers such as the new facility at the Grant County Regional Airport.

Mike Billman, project manager for Malheur, said Bear Mountain and its subsidiary, A3 Energy Partners, were instrumental in the design of the project. He also cited the contractor, JH Kelly; Nick Winfrey, a mill employee who provided expertise on the mechanical aspects, and the office staff in Prineville and John Day that handled a profusion of paperwork for the project.

Taking the tour, Rick Minster noted the importance of the plant.

“The job creation is great, but the job retention is just as important,” said Minster, who is the John Day-based development officer with the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department.

Malheur Lumber expects to hire up to 15 workers for the plant, and also add a small second shift at the sawmill to chip the loads coming in from the woods. The project is expected to bolster security for some 80 existing jobs.

Jennifer Barker of EO- Renew was excited about the efficiency of the new plant.

“It’s making use of a local energy resources,” she said. “We don’t have any fossil fuels in Oregon. Wood is our local resource, and this is a convenient way to use it.”


 

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