Just north of Santa Ysabel in San Diego's backcountry, Mesa Grande Road intersects State Route 79. Less than a mile to the west on Mesa Grande is a sight not seen in the county for more than 30 years: hundreds of felled trees, some nearly four feet in diameter, covering an acre or two of pastureland, a saw mill whining away under a metal canopy, and stacks of lumber being loaded onto flatbed trucks.
Five or six miles to the southeast and 1500 feet up Volcan Mountain, just outside the mountain hamlet of Wynola on a road of the same name, another sawmill renders local trees into lumber; across the road, a boxcar-sized chipper chews whole trees into woodchips, 20-foot piles of which await dump-truck rides down the mountain.
The Michigan-based tree-cutting company Asplundh is running the chipping operation. They have a contract with San Diego Gas and Electric to clear power line easements of dead trees. (Calls to Asplundh and SDG&E were not returned.) Sierra Cedar Products, a company based in Marysville, 35 miles north of Sacramento, runs the Santa Ysabel sawmill. "We never dreamed that we would be down on the Mexican border buying logs," says Tony Sims, a log buyer for the company. "We didn't know cedar grew down there. But it does, and the quality is actually better than the cedar we've been cutting up here in the Sierras. There's a lot less rot in the logs we're getting from San Diego County."
The cedar boards from the mill go to Sierra Forest Products' factory in Marysville and become 1´´x 8´´ and 1´´x 6´´ fence boards. They're also milling white fir trees into 4´´ x 4´´ posts, which they truck to Fontana to be pressure-treated for use as fence posts.
Despite the stands of high-quality cedar and white fir in our local mountains, Sims says his company will only run the mill for another year at the most. "It's only in a few isolated areas in San Diego County over 5000-feet elevation," he explains. "Palomar Mountain and some places around Julian and Volcan Mountain."
The second reason not to expect a permanent logging operation in San Diego County is the fact that no live trees are being cut down. The trees lying in the Santa Ysabel cow pasture were dead either of drought-aided beetle infestation or fire damage before they were cut down. And though tens of thousands of dead trees stand in the local mountains, they need to be cut within a certain amount of time after their deaths to be good for lumber. The amount of time depends on the species. "The white fir," Sims explains, "only lasts six to eight months. Cedar doesn't deteriorate as fast as white fir. We have cut cedar that has been a year and a half old, and we've bought cedar that has been dead for two years, but we don't like to do that. We like to get it at before a year is up."
Incense cedars and white firs, which grow above 5000 feet, are less common than the two pine species, Coulter and Jeffrey, which grow in the local mountains starting at 2500 feet and 1600 feet, respectively. Coulter pines have little lumber value. "There is use for it, but it is limited," Sims says. "I know they were cutting some of that for pallet stock up around Lake Arrowhead, and we have had some people talk to our company about maybe using our Santa Ysabel sawmill to cut up some Coulter for them. But right now we aren't doing it."
Jeffrey pines do have value as structural lumber. At the sawmill on Wynola Road, retired contractor Brian Steutel is cutting dead Jeffreys into timbers for a post-and-beam barn he plans to build on his nine-acre ranch. He's harvested the timbers from private ranches around Julian and Wynola. "Jeffreys are a little harder than Coulters," he explains, "less prone to infection."
Steutel is a wiry-built man in his early 60s. His trim white beard and the way he looks at you over the top of his glasses give him a grandfatherly air. But the speed at which he walks around his ranch is anything but grandfatherly. A loquacious man, Steutel says he's been milling Jeffrey pines up to two years dead for use in his barn. "Usually, I've got to get it in the first year," he says. "But I have found that the ones that have burned in the fires, I can probably get them up to two years. What happens is that any of the insects and the fungus that promotes all the rot in the trees get killed off from the heat of the fire as the bark burns. And the cedar trees, some of them have been dead on the stump for three or four or five years now, and they are still good because cedar has a lot of natural preservative stuff in it. It really holds up well. This week we are going over on the other side of Julian. A guy has some property over there, and he has 150 cedar trees that he says we can take out."
The idea to cut and mill his local timber came to Steutel two years ago when he saw log trucks hauling cedar, fir, and pine trunks down Wynola Road on their way to a log reloading yard outside of Temecula. The trees were beetle kills from the upper slopes of Volcan Mountain. "Those trucks came rolling by the house starting at 4:30 every morning. It went on for months. As I watched them go by, I thought, 'I've always wanted to build a timber-frame barn.' I researched a little and found out I could buy a truckload of those logs for about $2000. But a lot of neighbors told me, 'You can have my dead trees for free if you can get them out of here.' "
Through the mountain rumor mill, he heard of a man named Ted Ferrick, of Escondido, who owned a mobile sawmill capable of cutting trees over 3 feet in diameter and 30 feet long. Ferrick had also built a trailer that could haul logs up to 36 feet long and weighing nearly 6000 pounds. The trailer, hitched to a three-quarter-ton pickup parked in a horse corral on Steutel's ranch, looks like a giant stick bug. It consists of a long spine of square steel tubing, six inches in diameter, which can be adjusted for length. At the back end, two arms reach down and out to the two monster-truck-type wheels that hold the rig up. "After we cut down the tree," Steutel explains, "we pull the log to a level spot using a 5/8´´ steel cable. Then we back the trailer over the log and use these two ratcheting straps -- each of which is rated for 10,000 pounds -- to lift the log up off the ground and haul it to the mill."
A short walk from the horse corral, in a meadow hidden behind a stand of live oak trees, is Steutel's milling area. A dozen or so tree trunks, averaging 25 feet in length and 2 or 3 feet in diameter, lie side by side supported by railroad ties. The row of logs is on a slight incline, at the low end of which stands the green metal sawmill. "We drive right in here from the road," Steutel says, gesturing toward a dirt driveway angling down into the meadow from Wynola Road on the hillside above, "and set the logs on the railroad ties. Because they're on an incline, we can roll them down to the mill, which has hydraulic arms that lift the log up onto the mill. Then...."
Steutel gives a full demonstration of the $22,000, 28-foot horizontal band saw mill. A ten-horsepower gasoline motor propels the saw while a three-horsepower motor runs the hydraulics that lift and turn the logs.
From the sawmill, Steutel hikes back uphill to a row of horse stables he's using as lumber-drying barns. In them, he has stacked sawn Jeffrey pine timbers, including 18´´x 18´´ posts 26 feet long that will be the main supports for his post-and-beam barn. Canvas tarps cover the smooth blond-colored pine. "You have to be careful not to let them dry too fast," Steutel explains. "And you have to keep them out of the sunlight." He leans over and picks up a board from the ground. "This one has been in the sun so it's getting these stress cracks."
Steutel figures that by the time he's done cutting, milling, and drying all the timber for his barn, "I am going to save over $40,000 compared to what I would have paid if I had bought lumber commercially for this barn. That one 18´´ x 18´´ post would have been thousands of dollars alone, and it only took me a day to do. So instead of spending that kind of money, I am spending a year working a few days a week, playing around with the mill, and having a good time too."