For Revelstoke’s wood industries, diversity is key

Revelstoke’s unique industry conditions provide space for smaller milling operations

Keith Starling in front of one of the beautiful saunas that he produces with Tomi Supinen, owner of TnT Sauna House, using wood that would otherwise go to waste. Photo: Laura Stovel

This story first appeared in print in the March 2021 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. Read the e-edition here:

Revelstoke’s long history of forestry still shows in the many log yards and mills, large and small, that dot the landscape. Less visible is a thriving network of trade and cooperation between these operations. In a province where the forest industry is being increasingly dominated by a handful of very large players that are buying up smaller, community-based companies, Revelstoke’s wood industry has remained relatively local.

Revelstoke’s logging companies and mills have deep roots in the community. Joe Kozek, owner of Kozek Sawmill has managed the family business for 45 years. Stella-Jones’s pole yard, formerly Bell Pole, has existed for almost 60 years. Downie Sawmills was founded in the 1950s and was bought by the Gorman Brothers, based in the Okanagan, in 1990. Woodlots, including those held by the Graham family, Phil Des Mazes, and Mike Cummings and Dell Williams, have been around for decades. There are also several small mills, including the Greenslide Cattle Company mill owned by Jim Graham, the High Arrow Log Builders mill owned by Mike Cummings, Take to Heart Specialty Wood Products owned by Keith Starling and the Revelstoke Wood Company mill owned by Tom Scott.

Although Stella-Jones and the Gorman Group are large companies – Stella-Jones is North America’s largest producer of “industrial pressure-treated wood products,” according to the company website – their operations in Revelstoke maintain, for the most part, a small-town feel.

According to Pat McMechan, yard supervisor at Stella-Jones pole yard, the continuity and diversity in Revelstoke’s wood industry “has led to us having a very stable forest industry, which is not the case in much of the province. It’s done this community very well.” Revelstoke’s mayor, Gary Sulz, agrees. “Forestry is still a big to-do” in Revelstoke,” he said. “It’s one of our major employers in the community. Even though we’ve transitioned to more of a tourism-based community, the higher paying jobs, the stability in the community has always been in our resources, whether it’s mining or forestry. Forestry has been what’s kept us alive over the long term.”

Cooperation between the city and local logging companies led to the creation of the Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation (RCFC) in 1992, Sulz pointed out. During a downturn in the world wood market, the City, led by then-mayor Geoff Battersby, got together with Joe Kozek of Kozek Sawmills, Jack Heavenor of Downie Street Sawmills, and Dick Jones of Cascade Cedar to buy the RCFC tree farm license north of Revelstoke. “That kept the mills open. It kept the jobs viable, and the community viable. If it wasn’t for RCFC we wouldn’t have Downie Street because it was one of the partners. And so it’s absolutely imperative that we make sure we have forestry,” he said.

“Getting the right log to the right mill”

Kozek Sawmill in Arrow Heights is one of several small operators that exist in part to a collaborative approach to fibre supply. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer

The existence of diverse and well-established log yards and mills makes it easier to cooperate and serve different markets. Companies can trade logs with each other according to their specialization – in the words of RCFC manager Mike Copperthwaite, “getting the right log to the right mill.”

Joe Kozek, whose company no longer holds logging tenures but still sells logs, explained this trade with a hypothetical example. “Let’s say, you’re cleaning a building lot. You send me all your logs. You have fir, hemlock, cedar, spruce, one quarter of each. We may go through your cedar and see if we can find a power pole which we’ll sell to Stella-Jones. If there’s a saw log we’d send that possibly to Downie. Something like a fir, because it’s our main thing, we’d probably saw all that ourselves. The hemlock, it could be sold or sawn here. And the spruce could be sawn or sold but also some of it we use for trade for additional wood. So we send a load of spruce to Downie and a truck comes back with a load of fir.” Through this trade, each company gets what it values most.

The variety of log yards serves the needs of smaller producers who mill and make specialty wood products. RCFC, Kozek and, to some degree, Louisiana Pacific will allow small mills and wood manufacturers to choose and buy single logs. For Keith Starling, owner of Take to Heart Specialty Wood Products, this is key to his business model. While the bigger logging companies may sell individual logs in weaker markets, “when booming markets are happening and they’re selling everything that they actually can produce, I can’t access the wood. They won’t sell to me,” he said. That makes his relationship with RCFC extremely important.

“If there was never a community forest company where small guys could have access to wood all the time then I would be concerned that there might be a day when I wouldn’t be able to get anything. Right now, I’m pretty dependent on RCFC because the markets are very strong,” Starling said.

Extracting the best value for the log

The Downie Timber operation is Revelstoke’s main sawmill employer. Photo: Aaron Orlando.

When Starling looks at a big cedar log that might be rotten in the middle or a grand old hemlock, a less popular wood, often destined for pulp mills, he does not see a low-value log; he sees potential. Starling is looking for wood that can be made into something beautiful: a table, flooring, veneer, trim or timber frame packages or a custom-built sauna. Although he loves to work with a log with a perfect grain, he can also work with one that is unsuited to mass production if he sees something in it.

“If somebody’s thinking it’s a low-grade log and there’s not much value to it for the big operations, it doesn’t make sense for them to cut it,” he said. “If I can get the log for the right price, it makes sense for me to buy it and then I’ll see things in it that maybe other people won’t. I’m looking for uniqueness in the log and value,” not opportunities for mass production.

Working with wood in this way is an artistic process. The log “tells me what I should do with it,” he said. “I don’t force a log into a product that it shouldn’t be. Like if the log is really special and it’s got big curves in it, really big knots, I’ll know what the best use is for that product. It’s not so much what that log should be doing for me. It’s actually how can I best expose this log for its beauty.”

“When I talk about extracting the value, it’s more than just dollars; it’s beauty, he said. “It’s a respect thing. I do feel in awe at times when I’m cutting this wood. I’m so blessed to actually have the ability to do this. It’s taken hundreds of years for this tree to grow and I’m the last point. And I make this decision on how people are going to see this for generations.”

For Starling, as for the many fine woodworkers in town, creating treasures from wood not only honours the wood, it often rescues wood from the waste stream. The beautiful saunas that Starling produces with Tomi Supinen, owner of TnT Sauna House, use wood that would otherwise go to waste. There is a lot of potential for high-value wood production in Revelstoke, Starling said. “We have tremendous resources here. It’s untapped.”

Nurturing a thriving high-value wood manufacturing industry, including by providing continued access to single logs, would add another strong layer to Revelstoke’s cooperative wood economy.

Laura Stovel is a writer and the author of three books who has a strong interest in environmental and social justice issues. She grew up in Revelstoke but has also lived, worked and travelled in many countries around the world.