Lumber mills in Cloquet and International Falls are seeing major backups of logging trucks entering the facilities as a result of an overabundance of aspen logs being delivered to the plants.
The backups aren't the fault of mills, but the result of a relative warm early winter, according to Scott Dane, executive director of the Associated Contract Loggers and Truckers of Minnesota. The Sappi Global mill in Cloquet and the Boise Paper facility in International Falls primarily process aspen wood.
Aspen stands in northern Minnesota are much more accessible than stands of spruce and other species, which are typically located in swamps or much wetter regions.
The problem, Dane said, is the warm temperatures so far this winter have failed to freeze areas with more spruce trees. What's more, Dane is concerned that even with the region's recent bitter cold, the areas will not freeze enough for loggers.
"In most places, we've got 12-18 inches of snow insulating the ground," Dane said.
The warm weather immediate and long-term consequences.
As a result of backups that have extended up to 0.75 miles, the turnaround time for logging trucks to unload and head back out for another has more than doubled. What is typically a half-hour wait has grown to a one- to two-hour process. Instead of dropping off three loads per day, truckers can only fit two loads in, Dane said.
At the current rate, the three mills primarily processing aspen wood in northern Minnesota, which also includes Louisiana Pacific in Two Harbors, will have a full inventory by early February, according to Dane. Loggers could continue to harvest and stockpile aspen logs, but that doesn't help in the short term. While they will eventually be able to sell the aspen wood, they won't get paid by the mills until logs are delivered later this year.
"We anticipate all the aspen mills will hit their inventory levels within the next two to three weeks," Dane said. "We hope we're wrong. I'd love to be wrong, but with the amount of wood that's flowing into those places, it's not likely that we are."
Even worse news for loggers, the permits they purchased from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for those spruce stands, which are primarily on public land, could expire before they can access the appropriate areas, leaving them with even less to show for the winter's work.
Dane met with the DNR on Jan. 16 about the issues loggers are facing getting to species other than aspen. He said the DNR took a "wait-and-see" attitude with the hope conditions will improve and loggers will get the access they need before the end of the winter and logging permits expire. Beyond extending the permits, however, there is little the DNR could do.
Dane also said Sappi is working with loggers to "tweak" the way deliveries are made to ease the backups at the mills.
Among the changes would be the way the amount of wood delivered is calculated. Currently, the amount is calculated by weight. Trucks drive over a weigh scale and then often drive to a satellite lumber yard to deliver the wood. Trucks then have to drive back to the mill to be weighed again. Dane suggested another method that would calculate the wood being delivered using the measurements of the truck and a formula, which would prevent trucks going to satellite yards from making two unnecessary stops at the mill.
Dane also said trucks could be allowed unload their own wood using the mounted loaders on the trucks and mills could increase the number of hours each day trucks are allowed to make deliveries.
As an example, Dane pointed to the LP mill in Two Harbors. LP allows trucks to unload their own wood and deliveries can be made 24 hours a day. Typical turnarounds at LP are more in the range of 30-35 minutes.
Still, LP is facing inventory ceilings just like Sappi and Boise. Dane said a longer-term solution would be a fourth aspen mill in northeast Minnesota, such as the one under consideration by LP in Cook. LP owns the former Potlatch mill in Cook, but in 2017 chose to focus on developing another mill in British Columbia.
"A mill in Cook would alleviate a lot of this problem," he said.