The logging industry has few certainties. For Gregg Wilkins, a fifth-generation sawmill operator who makes a living turning logs into lumber, one is there will always be wood, but never enough time.
Since a young age he has worked in the family business, Wilkins Lumber, a small mill just east of Salida.
He has seen changes in the industry over the years and knows the realities of a physically demanding job – “one where nobody is getting rich,” said Wilkins.
“This job, these trees, are what I am passionate about, and it’s our livelihood,” he said.
Wilkins sat on a ponderosa pine tree, where he lit a cigarette and surveyed a yard with logs piled high on one side and neatly stacked lumber on the other.
“I just love seeing logs go in and lumber go out,” he said. The process, which he still performs by hand, involves loading logs onto a jig and cutting them into lumber with an internal combustion gas-powered saw built in 1937.
There is no automation behind what Wilkins does. With practiced hands, he easily makes minor adjustments to heavy logs before sending them through the saw with precision.
The family business began when Gregg Wilkins’ great-great-grandfather began milling ties near Hayden Pass for the railroads in 1924.
In 1950 the mill moved to Salida and in 1951 to its current location off U.S. 50 just east of Salida.
Wilkins Lumber Inc. now cuts locally sourced Colorado lumber into custom lumber orders for building projects of all types.
It’s a small operation, said Wilkins. Each year his mill produces about a half-million board-feet, a unit of measure specific to lumber.
By comparison a larger mill with automated saws may produce 16 million board-feet or more each year.
“We want to get to where we are turning out 1 to 2 million board-feet a year,” he said.
He concentrated on the log he was sitting on. It came almost to his waist when he stood next to it and reached lengthwise to either side of him. “I would say this tree alone might have 275 board-feet in it,” said Wilkins, an estimate made with a lifetime of experience.
Wilkins took over the family business from his father in the early 2000s. Each generation builds on the experience of the last.
“My grandfather had it pretty good and didn’t know it,” said Wilkins. It was during that time, he said, around the 1970s, when Wilkins Lumber also logged its own timber from areas around Colorado.
Now, Wilkins purchases a variety of timber from loggers that use both private and public land. In the process of turning logs into timber, the harvesting of the wood is the most expensive part.
It is also the one fraught with environmental challenges like changing weather conditions and bureaucratic challenges like securing timber permits from the U.S. Forest Service, he said.
A logger needs a sawmill and a sawmill needs loggers, said Wilkins.
In the years since his grandfather ran the mill the industry, he said, has become the subject of negative stereotypes pertaining mostly to logging practices.
“My biggest thing is finding moderation. There are healthy forest that should not have been logged and unhealthy forest that should have been logged,” said Wilkins. “Nobody cares about a healthy forest more than I do.”
The wood used by the sawmill is all beetle kill, he said. Everything in Colorado is devastated by beetle kill.
Engelmann spruce affected by a spruce beetle outbreak can be seen in the distant hills above Wilkins Lumber.
When Wilkins is operating the old saw, it roars as it cuts though ponderosa pine, Engelmann spruce, Douglas fir, lodgepole pine and other trees native to Colorado.
“In a small way I think we are making a difference by promoting healthy forests. We make our living off of the trees that come from the forest, and the health of the forest has a direct impact on what we do,” he said.
That same passion can be seen all the way from the loggers, to the sawmill operators, to the people who make the cabinets, he said. It impacts everybody.
Wilkins said it is his passion for lumber and the family business that has allowed him keep the business going when few other sawmill operations have been able to adjust to industry changes over the years.
In the 1980s there were around 300 sawmills operating in Colorado; now about 25 are still in operation.
Wilkins’ sawmill is able to cut a variety of sizes and widths with the pull of a few levers. He wonders who will take on the family business after him. Wilkins hopes it will be his youngest son, Sawyer, who is only a baby.
“I better get back to work; it’s my comfort zone,” said Wilkins. He walked back toward the saw. It reminded him of another certainty of the logging industry: “As long as people are building things, they will need lumber to do it.”