It was early, even for the birds, on a crisp blue winter morning when DFW Photographer Bill Byrne and I arrived at Jim Conkey’s sawmill on Old North Dana Road in New Salem, MA. C & M Rough Cut is nestled in the woods just a stone’s throw from the banks of the Quabbin Reservior. A small sign at the corner of Old North Dana Road and Route 122 indicates that you are headed in the right direction, but if you’re not careful you might drive right past the simple dirt driveway and mailbox that reads “Conkey” in faded metal lettering. This small-scale sawmill has stood in the same location for more than 30 years, though Jim can tell you stories about the days before log trucks when this sawmill, like most, was transported from timber harvest to timber harvest to process local forest products. There are plenty of good reasons to stop and visit Jim, maybe you need firewood to heat your home, or some rough cut lumber to start a new project, or maybe like us you’re looking for a story. Bill and I found ourselves huddled around the woodstove in Jim’s leaning, rustic cabin of an office that morning because we were following a story…a story about wood…a story about wildlife…and a story about community.
You may have heard about the new DFW Field Headquarters building that is slated for its grand opening sometime this spring in Westborough, MA. Funded through an environmental bond enacted by the legislature and capital funding made available to DFG and DFW by Governor Patrick, the building will be the first zero net energy state office building in the Commonwealth (see www.mass.gov/anf/property-mgmt-and-construction/design-and-construction-of-public-bldgs/current-and-completed-projects/environmental-projects/division-of-fisheries-and-wildlife-field-headquarters-b.html). It will utilize innovative technologies including a geothermal heating and cooling system and solar photovoltaics, and it will be Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certified. It will also include larger meeting and classroom spaces, increasing DFW’s capacity to offer and facilitate training and education programs. In addition, this state of the art facility will contain a unique connection to local forest products, local businesses, and to DFW habitat management for declining native wildlife species..
Black cherry and northern red oak trees that were harvested from two different DFW habitat management projects in the winter of 2012-2013 will be used in the new building. Hand- and guardrails are being milled from black cherry harvested during a shrubland restoration project at our Stafford Hill Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Cheshire. Reclamation of abandoned agricultural fields at Stafford Hill have restored approximately 240 acres of valuable shrubland habitat to support declining wildlife species such as eastern towhee, chestnut-sided warbler, and American woodcock. In addition, the library flooring is being milled from northern red oak harvested as part of a habitat management project at our Phillipston WMA in Phillipston. Last winter’s timber harvest at Phillipston helped address a public safety issue related to winter icing on Queen Lake Road (Route 101). DFW removed softwood trees along the south side of the road to reduce shading that was creating dangerous driving conditions. This same project also created approximately 40 acres of young forest habitat on abandoned agricultural lands that was dominated by mature white pine to promote regeneration of mast producing trees (i.e., red and white oak) and to increase fruit production of soft mast producing shrubs, especially blueberry, for the benefit of many wildlife species including deer and bear. Long-time Phillipston residents and neighbors to the WMA recount stories of picking blueberries and listening to the sounds of whip-poor-wills at this site during their childhood. As a result of the timber harvest, blueberries may once again become plentiful at the site.
In addition to creating valuable wildlife habitat and sustainably harvested wood for the new building, these projects also supported local jobs. TR Land Works, LLC out of Hartford, CT completed the work at our Stafford Hill WMA and Sawyer’s Trucking and Logging out of Hubbardston, MA completed the work at our Phillipston WMA. Forest products including hardwood firewood, sawlogs, and low-quality softwood chips were generated from these projects. The firewood was processed to be sold to local residents for winter heating. The chipwood was utilized by Pinetree Power, a local power plant in Westminister, MA to generate electricity. The majority of the sawlogs were trucked to mills in New Hampshire, Maine or Canada for processing into dimensional lumber (i.e., 2’’x4’’ boards). Unfortunately, the majority of dimensional lumber that originates in Massachusetts is trucked out of state to be processed, and subsequently trucked back into Massachusetts to be sold as finished boards, or more commonly, is sold elsewhere. This situation is the result of a local economy that does not generate enough support for sawmill operations in the Commonwealth. Sadly, not only does this result in an increased carbon footprint for each piece of lumber we use, but it also results in significant loss of jobs as they are increasingly moving out of state. While we have excelled at reviving other markets (like the local food market) we are failing to support our local forest products market in a state that is greater than 60% forested.
The cherry and oak logs for the new building were processed at local Massachusetts sawmills. Rough cutting of the sawlogs was completed by Jim Conkey at C&M Rough Cut. Jim’s grandfather and father were both sawmill operators before him, and his brother is a full time logger running some of the most high-tech logging equipment in Massachusetts (John Conkey & Sons Logging). Though Jim Conkey initially didn’t care for the lumber business and joined the military in the 1960’s, he came back to the mill life over 40 years ago and has been with it ever since. Jim is a humble, no nonsense kind of man. He is weathered from years of hard work, but that doesn’t hide the playful twinkle in his eye or the gently sloping smile that is always perched across his lips.
Bill and I were lucky enough to arrive at the mill early on a winter morning; early enough to enjoy a few of Jim’s stories by the woodstove before the equipment could be put into operation. However, it was only a short time before Jim looked at the thermometer and decided it had warmed up enough to start the equipment for the day’s work. Jim’s mill processes about 100,000 board feet annually, much less than it used to when business was better, but enough to sustain the company. The lumberyard is always kept tidy and organized. It is a place where you can feel good about doing business.
After the rough cutting was complete, the oak and cherry were trucked to Lashway Lumber in Williamsburg, MA for kiln drying. Lashway Lumber has been family owned for four generations. Currently, Gerald Lashway co-owns the sawmill with his two sons, Larry and Gerry. Larry now runs Lashway Lumber and Gerry runs the Ponders Hollow mill in Westfield, MA specializing in custom flooring and millwork. After kiln drying was completed in Williamsburg, the red oak moved to the Westfield mill for tongue & groove processing as floorboards. As Bill and I followed the story of this wood we had a chance to tour the Williamsburg mill with Larry. Larry is jovial and poignantly honest. He believes in the business he has worked so hard for his entire life, and he believes in a sustainable local forest economy.
The story of Lashway Lumber is truly an inspiring one. As a member of the Commonwealth Quality Program (see www.mass.gov/agr/cqp/sectors/forestry/index.htm) Lashway Lumber strives to meet the highest environmental stewardship standards when it comes to timber harvesting and the production of forest products. While the firm took a hard hit in the recession, its owners turned an obstacle into an opportunity and began to diversify their business. Investing in Vacutherm Vacupress kilns, fast-drying and energy efficient, they are now able to meet a diverse array of custom kiln drying needs, including anything from major league baseball bat billets to fingerboards for major guitar companies.
By the time you read this the flooring will have been processed at Ponders Hollow and trucked to the new building in Westborough for installation. But the story doesn’t end there; it doesn’t end with the hand- and guardrails or the library flooring. Now it is up to the rest of us to ensure that sustainably harvested local forest products are available in the Commonwealth. It is up to us to support a local market that demonstrates responsible stewardship of our forest lands, to support local jobs for our neighbors, and to reduce the carbon footprint of the very materials that sustain the structure of our lives. Look for an update on the wood for the new building in a future edition of Massachusetts Wildlife magazine.
Regulations in red are new this year.
Purple text indicates an important note.