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Local lumber bill would put grading in hands of producers

Riley Board

A proposed state Senate bill from Nikiski Republican Jesse Bjorkman would put lumber evaluation in the hands of local sawmill operators, allowing local lumber to be used more readily in building projects.

A press release from the Alaska Senate Majority says the state is struggling to meet housing shortages, an issue exacerbated by increases in the cost of construction materials and supply chain lag times.

As it stands, lumber used for construction must first be graded — or assessed and categorized — by a third-party agency, meaning it leaves the local area before getting to a contractor. Bjorkman’s bill would instead allow certified sawmill operators to grade their own lumber.

In the press release, Bjorkman writes, “Allowing for local lumber grading in Alaska will create economic opportunities for small businesses, provide an opportunity for Alaskans to purchase local products, and perhaps offer building materials at a lower cost than dimensional lumber from the Lower 48.”

Trevor Kauffman is a Soldotna sawmill operator, timber-cutter and former Kenai Peninsula Borough land management agent. He said he’s excited about the potential of the bill, though he said locally graded lumber isn’t going to overtake Home Depot or Spenard any time soon.

“In the short term, it’s not going to revolutionize the local house-framing market with all local wood. But it will allow for certain things to happen that have not been possible in the past,” Kaufffman said.

He said some custom home builders, for example, prefer local lumber for its appearance and custom dimensions.

Kauffman said the lumber market has been better lately, but the bill is a good idea even if supply chain issues aren’t the biggest concern right now. He said if another pandemic or supply-chain-disrupting event does happen, Alaska would be prepared to build with local lumber.

“If that does happen again in the future, we’ll be more resilient to shortcomings,” he said.

Dave Roderick is a sawmill operator of 14 years. He runs the Blood, Sweat and Tears mill in Anchor Point. He said the bill will be a great way to encourage Kenai builders to get their wood locally.

“I think the local lumber producers will get a little more busy, just because if they go to a class and get their certification to grade lumber, there will be a lot more people willing to go to a sawmill versus the stores, to keep the business local,” Roderick said.

He also suspects the bill might spur an increase in new local lumber producers, inspired by the lower barrier to entry.

Under the bill, the Department of Natural Resources would host classes for sawmill operators to receive a grading certificate. The producer would then be licensed to grade their own lumber.

When it comes to quality assurance, Kauffman and Roderick said there needs to be some sort of inspector who routinely checks on local lumber producers to make sure they’re following best practices.

“Sawing lumber is a pretty simple process. You’re just taking something that’s round and making it rectangular,” Kauffman said. “But there’s an art to it, and it’s important that if you’re gonna produce lumber and it’s gonna be used in a structure that it’s done well, and it’s done skillfully and it’s done correctly.”

He said there should also be a mechanism for revoking the grading certificate if practices are violated. The language of the bill says the division may revoke a certificate with “good cause.” The certificates also expire after five years and must be renewed.

Kauffman said he’s looking forward to how the bill might create a more local ecosystem for lumber products.

“It gives me a lot of pride to go out and to cut a tree down and to mill it up and to build something durable out of it,” he said. “I think that’s really rewarding and I hope there’s lots of people around here that will value that, just like there're people that are willing to spend 15 or 20 percent more to buy an onion at the farmers market instead of buying it at Safeway.”

He said even when it’s not more cost efficient or time saving than getting wood from Home Depot, he hopes Alaskans see the value in supporting local producers.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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