New lumber-grading bill could open markets for Alaska sawmills

A pile of sawdust in a muddy parking lot
Sawdust and wood scraps at Mud Bay Lumber Company in Haines. Haines is one of dozens of communities around Alaska that have looked into biomass technology. (Photo provided by Clay Good/REAP)

A recently passed state bill would allow small sawmill operators to grade their own lumber. This could open some new markets to Alaska operators.

Senate Bill 87 would allow Alaska sawmill operators to become certified to grade and sell certain types of dimensional lumber they produce for residential construction. As it stands now, Alaskans have to ship in graded lumber from the outside, which is expensive. The grading is required to sell lumber in places that enforce building codes, like Juneau and Anchorage.

The bill passed the House on May 1, 38-1. It passed the Senate unanimously last month, with a vote of 16-0.

Sage Thomas operates a sawmill in the Chilkat Valley.

“In our town of Haines, there is no building codes and there is no inspectors, so you can build with whatever you want, so our local sawmills have been selling lumber here for years,” he said. “But in Juneau or Anchorage or places like that, you can’t.”

Thomas said he doesn’t plan on selling lumber outside the Haines area but would be interested in taking the training to learn about grading lumber.

The state’s Department of Natural Resources would oversee the certification program and provide free training for sawmill operators. Greg Palmieri is the state forester in Haines. He described what grading lumber means.

“What you are doing is identifying the quality of the stick of wood,” he said. “So you are looking for things that are going to impact the structural integrity of the piece, so in other words the distribution of knots, the size of knots, those all have factors in the quality of the lumber and therefore the grades of the lumber will reflect that.”

Palmieri said there are three training locations being planned, one near Fairbanks, one on the Kenai Peninsula and one in Southern Southeast. He said the program could be a boost to local sawyers.

“The grading certification allows them to produce that product and enter into that market, which is a significant opportunity for the local rough cut and full dimension lumber,” he said.

The bill is now waiting for Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s signature.

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