Suppliers scramble to meet demand for wood

By Kelly Kenoyer
Lebanon Local

Anyone working with wood right now knows it’s a hot market for lumber.
Plywood has more than doubled in price from where it was six months ago, as have products like graded panels.
The situation stems from a number of complex factors, from hurricanes in the south to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to industry experts.
As the rains return, and logging picks up in local forests, demand is as high as it’s ever been, said Milt Moran, president of Cascade Timber Consulting, which manages some 100,000 acres of timberland in the area.
“We’re seeing significant demand for logs,” he said. “We are able to move just as much wood as we can at the moment, thanks to the good luck market we’re enjoying.”
From the start of the pandemic, Moran saw a jump in demand for lumber as restaurants started building outdoor patios in the cities to keep serving customers, then from stimulus money getting homeowners to build new projects.
“We just happen to have a good economy for housing starts,” he added. He expects that demand to stay high, especially since the wildfires decimated several local communities, which will have to rebuild.
“I don’t see much of a change here for a bit as long as we can maintain a strong economy,” he said.
The pinch in the market may have its origins in the start of the pandemic.
George Virtue, operations manager at Weyerhaeuser’s Santiam Lumber Mill on Highway 20, said the mill had to slow down due to reduced demand following the arrival of the coronavirus and resulting shutdowns.
“When COVID first hit we saw a lot of the traditional businesses, the lumberyard and the distributors of lumberyards, really go into a kind of a weather-the-storm kind of approach.”
That meant demand was way down for a while, and mills started curtailing hours, including at Santiam.
“I think that took some much-needed wood out of the system,” Virtue said. “And then it’s thought that maybe some of the stimulus did trigger some additional spending on lumber; with people being at home there’s a lot more home improvement,” he said.
That’s why home improvement centers like Lowe’s and Home Depot started asking for more than double their usual requests for wood products, he said.
“Right after COVID hit those sales started to come through on the lumber. The mills didn’t

A worker loads lumber on a train.

have it in inventory, and as soon as that inventory wasn’t there, then there’s no supply and prices go up. Now it’s just continued to rise to unprece-dented levels.”
That basic supply and demand is the crux of the problem at this point: Demand has continued to be high, and without a cushion of ready lumber available from the mills, buyers are competing more directly for every board foot, driving prices to levels a lot of consumers won’t accept.
The price inflation has less to do with work safety requirements installed because of COVID. Though the changes did slow production down a bit at the beginning, workers quickly adjusted to more cleanings between shifts and the company is back up to good productivity since then, he said. It has a lot more to do with market fluctuations that none were able to predict.
Evan Ray, lumber sales lead at Hoy’s Hardware in Sweet Home, said “everybody who got those stimulus checks is spending it on projects like this.”
On top of increased local demand, he said the major hurricanes in the South destroyed homes, which drove up demand. A lot of plywood manufactured in Oregon is being shipped away for construction in the impacted southern states, which drives up local prices.
Above all that, there’s still a booming construction market on housing in Linn County and in Oregon, plus all the ordinary folks trying to buy lumber for their home projects.
“They can’t get it out quick enough to the demand,” Ray said. “Finding stock at the right price has been my headache for the summer and spring and it’s still my headache.”
Locals aren’t particularly willing to buy lumber at the inflated prices, even though, he said, Hoy’s is cheaper than big box stores, thanks to Ray’s relationships with local suppliers like Cascade Timber Consulting.

LOGS HEAD up the conveyor belt to the saws at Weyerhaeuser’s Santiam Mill.

“Even though I’m 20% cheaper than everyone else, they’re waiting for the bubble to pop,” Ray said, referring to folks who come in looking to buy lumber for large projects. “What we’re trying to avoid is buying all this high-priced lumber and plywood, and getting into the winter and being stuck with it.”
It’s been tough going, he added. “I’ve probably taken five years off my life this year.”
Due to recent wildfires, there will be no short supply of available timber. Salvage logging is already getting started in the burned-over areas, aimed at getting value out of destroyed trees before the weather takes them, Virtue said.
“We actually already got some test logs in here to make sure there won’t be any quality issues with them,” he said, adding that he expects the salvage logs to keep the mill busy for the “next couple years.”