KETCHIKAN - Deep inside the ruins of the Ketchikan Pulp Co. mill, a birth is under way. As with any delivery, it's painful and full of promise.
Kevin Curtis is the parent.
A wood lover with a doctorate in structural engineering, Curtis heads the Ketchikan Wood Technology Center. His assignment: breathe life into a new timber industry for Alaska.
"This industry is rising out of the ashes," Curtis said. "It's like a football team that's in the rebuilding phase."
The wood tech center got started in 2000, three years after the giant Ketchikan pulp mill shut down. It was the second mill closure in Southeast in the 1990s, events that hobbled the timber industry and jolted the regional economy.
Funded from a variety of federal and state sources, the research and product-develop- ment center focuses on retooling the industry from pulp export to lumber and finished goods manufacturing. It's a tall order, but achievable, according to Curtis.
"I honestly think the best days of the forest-products industry lie ahead of us," Curtis said.
That's not normally what one hears about the struggling world of Alaska timber, an industry often characterized as down and out.
"There's that image of people staggering around and people taking their last gasp. But it doesn't have to be that way," Curtis said. "The main obstacle is ourselves. We have to understand this incredible resource we have in this state and how to use it effectively."
Alaska has been geared toward selling commodities: pulp, raw logs or green lumber, not dried and finished products that command top dollar. But since the pulp mills perished, some people have pushed to develop new ways of marketing Alaska wood, particularly the rare and high-value, old-growth spruce, hemlock and cedar of Southeast's temperate rain forest.
One of the center's biggest accomplishments has been getting three Alaska tree species their own grade stamps, comparable to the inspection seal the U.S. Agriculture Department puts on meat to certify that it's safe. The grade stamps enable Alaska wood to be sold as dimensional lumber in cities with building codes and it also allows sellers to market the timber's unique qualities.
For Rick Cabe, a sawmill owner on Prince of Wales Island, the center's efforts at getting Alaska wood graded have been invaluable.
"It's a must-have," Cabe said. "Your wood is worth more because they have it in the grade books now."
Cabe, who owns Thorne Bay Wood Products with his wife, used to sell green lumber. But after investing in a kiln and a planer, the Cabes began marketing flooring, tongue-and-groove siding, and log-cabin paneling to local and Lower 48 customers.
In the past, Alaska species were lumped in with their Canadian and Lower 48 counterparts. But through strength testing and other research, the Ketchikan center was able to show that Alaska spruce, hemlock and cedar are their own distinct species, and that they are stronger and superior.
On a recent late afternoon, as pale sunlight faded over the decaying pulp mill buildings, Mike Hannan, facility manager, ran slabs of yellow cedar through a strength testing machine inside the wood tech center.
"Not only is it strong, it's bug-resistant and it's easy on the eyes," said Hannan, describing the unique qualities of Alaska cedar.
Hannan oversees much of the day-to-day operation of the center, which also trains people to be wood graders. Hannan is proud of what the center is accomplishing.
"The last time this was done in Alaska was never!" Hannan said. "It's long overdue."
The lab is developing engineered wood products, things like glued-laminated beams made from yellow cedar. Such products are more insulated from the cyclical nature of timber markets and there's healthy demand for beams made from yellow cedar, which is naturally decay resistant, he said.
"That's going to be huge as more and more wood-treatment chemicals are banned as carcinogenic," Curtis said.
The center is also testing the strength characteristics of second-growth timber for the U.S. Forest Service. With more than 435,000 acres of clear-cuts in various stages of regrowth, the Forest Service needs to understand the commercial value of that timber, said agency spokesman Dennis Neill.
The center may be around for another four or five years and then sunset, or be turned over to the University of Alaska if there's enough money. Where the industry goes after that will be up to Alaskans, Curtis said.
"The marketing efforts and the testing efforts are describing the path, and whether we take it is up to us. We can't force people to do it. The possibility exists that we can have a vigorous forest-products industry, if we can shift people's paradigm," Curtis said.