Donegal Township sawmill tour highlights changing lumber industry
A complex, noisy network of blades and belts turned logs into dowels before a crowd of excited onlookers Saturday.
“I feel like Willy Wonka in the chocolate factory,” sawmill manager Patrick Cannin said as he showed off stacks of thousands of dowels piled high behind him. They will be used to make handles for sledgehammers, shovels and other tools.
About 25 people attended the tour of the Ames sawmill in Donegal Township, organized by the Westmoreland Woodlands Improvement Association.
Ames is based in Camp Hill and has numerous facilities in several states, but the wood used at the Donegal mill all comes from within a 200-mile radius, Cannin said.
“All of the wood you’re going to see here today, I rely on you folks for it,” he said.
Many members of the Westmoreland Woodlands Improvement Association own forests and wood farms. The group is celebrating its 30th year.
It started in early 1989 as an effort to educate landowners about sustainable forestry, and give them a way to meet others with similar interests.
“It’s an educational thing, and a fun social thing,” founding member Tony Quadro said.
The group takes occasional field trips, like the one to the sawmill, to teach its members more about how lumber is used.
“It educates our members to potential markets, and the end result of where their lumber ends up,” association President John Hilewick said.
The mill is a perfect illustration of how the wood business has changed over the years, Cannin said. Some of its equipment is about 100 years old and still going strong, while some is state-of-the-art machinery run by computers.
The sawmill was owned by Babcock Lumber until 2014, when Ames took it over. It employs about 42 people.
Most of its employees, including Cannin, worked there during the Babcock days, and have had to adapt to a new mission.
“We’re learning to become toolmakers,” he said. “We’re getting pretty good at it, I think.”
Forest owners have had their own changes and challenges to deal with, according to Quadro.
One common problem is the practice of “high grading,” in which loggers “cut the best and leave the rest” of the trees in an area, Hilewick said. This can be very profitable for landowners in the short term, but harms the long-term viability of the woodland.
The association works to convince landowners that more sustainable logging practices are better for the land and, in the long term, more profitable.
That’s been a priority for decades, but modern environmentalists and forest owners have new issues to deal with as well.
Insects such as the emerald ash borer have devastated tree populations. Ash used to be Ames’ preferred wood for making tool handles, but the company has mostly switched to red oak because ash is too hard to find, Cannin said.
Meanwhile, invasive plant species such as Japanese honeysuckle are choking out local forests, Quadro said.
There’s also more regulations to follow. Association member Rus Davies owns a small wood farm in Fairfield Township, said he has to jump through lots of hoops to get his operation regularly inspected.
This can be a costly hassle, but it does attract customers who want to buy certified sustainable wood, he said. Many landowners were already dedicated to sustainable practices, he said.
“People are now required to do it. I think most people did it anyway, I think it just weeds out the bottom feeders,” he said.
Not everyone who attended the tour was a forest owner. The trip was open to the public. Sandra and Allan Aahl, of Derry, saw an advertisement for the tour and decided to come along.
“I like the industrial aspect of it,” Allan Aahl said. “Their ability to employ people with local resources.”
Quadro said the Westmoreland Woodlands Improvement Association is for anyone interested in the woods, not just landowners.
It has more than 90 members, the most in its history, and Quadro hopes it will continue to thrive as it enters its fourth decade.
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer.
You can contact Jacob at 724-836-6646, [email protected] or via Twitter @Soolseem.
Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jacob at 724-836-6646, [email protected] or via Twitter .