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The woods are full of small trees, can they be made into homes?

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | January 25, 2023 1:35 PM

A few weeks ago Pat Clark and his team at Wooden Haus Supply and Stoltze Timber Systems put up the new Uptown Hearth Bakery addition in Columbia Falls in six days.

The building features cross laminated timbers — unlike stick frame structures, CLT is made from pieces of wood glued together under high pressure.

The floors of the bakery, for example, were one panel, put in place by a crane and then bolted to the walls.

CLT is nothing new, local manufacturer SmartLam, for example, made CLT panels for the the auditorium roof of the new Glacier Gateway Elementary School.

But current CLT manufacturing uses regular dimension lumber to make CLT — two-by-fours and the like.

But Clark sees a different future for the product. One that uses small diameter trees — trees that are often simply piled up and burned in slash piles after a timber sale.

Back in 2018 Clark was awarded a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to study if these small trees could be used to make CLT.

Clark said he collaborated with a company from Butte on the project and found that CLT could be made from smaller trees.

“The test results proved the strength capacity was substantially higher than the minimum standard,” Clark said.

Those standards are set by the American Plywood Association, he explained.

A typical beam from this CLT, he said, is stronger than a beam made from solid wood.

That could be good news for local manufacturers. Over the past 20 years, forests have seen millions of acres across the West go up in wildfires.

The regrowth, particularly in Montana woods, is often small diameter lodgepole pine — trees that could be utilized for the new CLT project.

Clark is optimistic that eventually a manufacturing facility in Columbia Falls could start producing small-diameter CLT in the coming years. He’s been working with F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber on a venture, called Stoltze Timber Systems, for the past few years.

Paul McKenzie, general manager for the 111-year-old Columbia Falls mill, said last week the company is still doing its due diligence on the potential project.

“We’re still trying to prove the economics and viability,” McKenzie said.

That could come in the next six months or so, he added.

The two first announced the joint venture back in 2020.

There are plenty of challenges, McKenzie noted, from the tight labor market to a softening of the housing market and higher interest rates.

Still, looking out over the local woods, many of them choked with small diameter trees, the idea makes sense, Clark and McKenzie agree.

“We’re taking a low value product and adding enormous amounts of value to it,” Clark said.

Terri Feury, the owner of Uptown Hearth couldn’t agree more.

She said she’s very happy with the project.

“The interior aesthetic to me is very pleasing,” she said. The bakery is expected to be fully open later this year, as interior work continues.

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