The Miracle Working Sawmill

By Morris R. Pike –

Arnie, my alter ego, and I were scooting along Highway 99W behind a log truck loaded with what looked like logs 20 inches or so in diameter.

“Want to see something before your very eyes that you would swear was a ‘no-way miracle . . .  a can’t be done miracle?’” Arnie asked.

Arnie tends to exaggerate . . . suspicious that he might be setting me up as he often did, I said, “That depends on what the ‘no way miracle . . . the can’t be done miracle is.”

“Follow that truck,” Arnie said. “You’ll see.”

I didn’t know Arnie had arranged for us to feast our eyes on Seneca Sawmill Company’s state-of-the-art operations. Almost mechanically, I obeyed his directive and pulled into the main gate of one of the largest sawmill complex in the United States. Owners and operators of the mill are obviously proud of their product . . . shiny stacks of newly processed lumber, some paper wrapped, clearly labeled Seneca Sawmill sat ready to be shipped to ravenous consumers everywhere.

“From beautiful, healthy trees unceremoniously jerked from the earth,” I said not happy seeing any forest acreage cut and processed for greedy consumption.

Our friendly tour guide overheard my rant. Nevertheless, she smilingly welcomed us, seeming almost to enjoy my indulgent hyperbole. And too kind to immediately challenge the premise of my discomfort, said, “Come… let me show you what we do with the only renewable building material on earth.” She then handed Arnie and I yellow vests, hard hats and safety glasses and we were on our way.

We were about to tour the complex stations of a sawmill where I expected to find piles of sawdust here and there and a blanket of dust over everything. We did see mountains of logs awaiting the ‘flying teeth’ of the high-tension band saw, but everything was showoff clean.

Reading my thoughts, our guide explained, “We bring in a street sweeper once a week to take care of untidy wood remnants and dirt. You may find it hard to believe, but in our operation we use every molecule of the tree . . . nothing is wasted,” she explained with expert authority.

“The forests are wasted,” I said betraying a prejudice based on varying degrees of ignorant propaganda and genuine, innocent concern for one of our great national resources.

It was obvious that she had dealt with such misconceptions before. “You can say it’s wasted, but you’d be wrong. We’re planting more trees than we harvest, making trees our nation’s only renewable natural resource.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. “How about glass . . . sand is everywhere.”

“Yes, it is,” she said, “But when’s the last time you’ve seen glass return to its natural state. .Sand?” She paused to let her point sink in, then added, “or stone quarries for that matter . . . or cement . . . probably won’t see it return to limestone, calcium silicates, calcium oxide, and calcium sulfate, anytime soon.”

I wanted to say iron, but bit my tongue… The fact that it takes many years for iron to rust back into nature and, as far as I know, there’s not a demand for decomposed iron. I kept my mouth shut.

We climbed a short set of metal stairs and went into the control booth where a man sat monitoring a computer screen and calmly tweaking the knobs displaying the results of a laser sensor scanning large logs. The images and data on the screen told him how the log should be cut to get maximum results. When he gave the go ahead, the rest was automatic.

“We use 100% of every tree and you can’t say that about aluminum slag,” she said with pride. “Here in the dimension mill,” she continued pointing at a large trunk of a 55 years-old tree, “high quality logs running from 12 inches and larger in diameter are cut into varying widths of prime lumber.”

“What about the rest?” I asked with growing appreciation of the miracle I was witnessing.

She was ready, “The mid-section of the tree, which will run from 7 to 12 inches in diameter, will be processed in our stud mill.”

“And the rest are trashed,” I said hoping to have a redeemed a bit of self-respect.

“Not at all,” she said kindly, “The one to three and one-half inch diameter from the top will be made into pulp chips.  The balance, as well as limbs and other slash left after harvest is ground up and delivered to our biomass plant to be used as fuel. All of what you would call waste wood is burned there to generate heat for the boilers and create power to run the electric motors.”

As we neared an otherworldly structure, the biomass facility, she pointed out that, while generating thermal energy for themselves, they were also able to power 13,000 homes in the area.”

“Okay,” I said marveling at the efficiency of the whole operation, “but what about the ashes from all that scrap burning . . . where do you dump that?”

“Dump it?” she laughed. “Not a chance. We market it to farmers who use it to fertilize their crops . . . wood chips and sawdust are sold to cardboard manufacturers . . . like we say, nothing is wasted.”

“Gotta admit,” I said swallowing hard, “Arnie is right . . . what you do here is a miracle . . . ‘A no-way-can it be done miracle.’  What is done here at Seneca is indeed a miracle.”

“Don’t forget the forests,” she continued, poking me gently in the arm,  “Our timber produces enough oxygen annually to purge emission from more than 86,000 automobiles and each year Seneca Timber Company plants in excess of one million seedlings. Our contributions exceed $4.5 million dollars in cash and in-kind assistance to improve water quality and fish habit and, except during fire season and we let the public use our lands for recreation. We manage a renewable resource whose beauty can be enjoyed by all. You can’t beat that.”

Arnie smiled and with a tone that let me know he had made his point, said, “Yeah . . . by wisely managing our one renewable resource, it will continue to be here forever. It is a miracle.”

Photos by Morris Pike and Jan Jackson


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