Mineral County students and community members were invited to the Idaho Forest Group (IFG) Mill in St. Regis on Oct. 24 for a tour. The invitation was in honor of Montana Forest Products Week celebrated Oct. 21-27. In addition to the tour, the group was given a drone demonstration.
Drones have become a valuable tool for IFG and are used for a variety of purposes, including inventory and tree inspections.
“At the mill we fly over the yard for inventory and can see the residual piles, which includes chips, sawdust and bark volumes,” explained IFG Regional Manager Chris Pease. “For potential sales we can see what the trees look like, and determine species and their health.”
Using the drones replaces employees having to hike in to inspect areas. The IFG employs three licensed drone pilots who fly a phantom four-quad copter, which has four propellers and a fixed-wing drone which looks like a small airplane. Pease said they also have a new hybrid drone that has a verticle take-off like a quad, but flies like a fixed-wing.
The drone can build a flight pattern going back and forth while taking hundreds of photos. Those are then digitized in a computer and a 3-D image is created. From those 3-D images, IFG can virtually inspect property and trees.
IFG bought Tricon Timber in November, 2017, and produces approximately 80 million board feet of lumber a year. The mill was selling on the open market and now works with home centers like Lowe’s and Home Depot.
“We just shipped our first Home Depot truckload out last week,” said Pease. “It’s a big deal. This allows us to sell to a national market year around.”
But selling to home centers means the boards have to not only meet minimum building codes, they also need to have a high appearance grade.
“Customers are looking at each board individually and if they don’t like it, they won’t buy it,” he said.
There is one shift at the mill in St. Regis which has approximately 100 employees. Pease said they would like to get to the point where they are running two shifts. In order to get their lumber supply they work with the local collaborative made up of government representatives, business owners, and community leaders.
“We’re continuing to find opportunity to increase the harvest of federal timber. Mineral County has one of the highest federal tree acreage of any county and so we are dependent on that federal program to continue to grow and not shrink,” he said.
Currently, IFG is getting salvage wood from the Sunrise Fire, which burned 27,000 acres in 2017. Pease explained that though trees may look healthy which were burned in the wildfire, they are dying on the stump. “They are dead but they just don’t know it yet.”
The trees die from the inside and soon become vulnerable to insects, disease and rot.
“We are trying to get ahead of that, for the forest health. We want to get those green sales and not salvage sales. By working with all entities we want to meet all requirements and get timber on the green side and not wait until its salvage wood from a fire,” said Pease.
In addition to getting a steady supply of timber, IFG also faces the challenge of finding employees. Because of the rural nature of St. Regis it’s difficult to find a large labor pool.
“It’s not just manufacturing, all over the labor market it’s difficult to find employees,” Pease said.
Currently, the mill is partnering with Mineral, Sanders and Missoula counties to bring on employees who would be a good fit with the IFG culture.
“People don’t need to go into debt with a four-year degree,” he said. “We have jobs available here, now that pay well and have a high job satisfaction rate. People can make a great living and live in an area they love.”
Jobs include positions like log scalers, saw filers, boiler operators, and lumber graders. IFG has on-the-job training and people can get certified. “They don’t have to come in knowing it all,” he said.
State government agencies, industry leaders and educators, including Superior High School, the University of Montana and Flathead College are working together to create effective programs. Programs which give young men and women the best opportunity for success when coming into the job market.
“IFG is excited to be in St. Regis. We have a good team and they are hard working and make this operation a success. It’s rewarding to see people stretch out into their strength and potential,” said Pease.
IFG’s main office is located in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and they currently own seven regional sawmills located in north Idaho and Montana. The company also recently acquired the Merritt Brothers Finger Joint Mill located in Athol, Idaho.