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Sawmilling Success Stories

Thin-Kerf Sawmilling on Orcas Island Helps to Build a Stronger Community

Thin-Kerf Sawmilling on Orcas Island Helps to Build a Stronger Community

by Jack Petree, Contributing Author

Kaj Enderlein is passionate about working with his Orcas Island, Washington neighbors to rediscover the art of locally based sustainable living.  “My passion is learning more about how we can work together to achieve food sovereignty and sustainable island living as we grow in trust, love, community, and education,” Kaj puts forward.

Along with many of his friends and neighbors, Kaj is an explorer attempting to discover more about the systems that support life and how they can be integrated into everyday living on Orcas Island. Kaj focuses on two aspects of island living including the creation of a healthy, sustainable forest system and how community oriented agriculture relates to educating islanders about how to grow their own food. 

Orcas Island is a particularly vulnerable community both in terms of disruptions in the supply of what most people consider to be everyday needs, including food, and in terms of the potential for natural disasters capable of devastating large portions of the island. From a food security standpoint, Orcas Island is almost completely dependent on the Washington State Ferry system for the transport necessary to import foodstuffs from the mainland.  A major weather concern or other natural event could cut the island off from food, fuel, and other needs for days, or even weeks, at a time.  Because of its scenic beauty the island sometimes has as many visitors as it does permanent residents.  Any disruption impacting food, fuel, and other items would result in disastrous shortages in a very short time.

Regarding natural disasters, one of the things that gives the island its great beauty is large expanses of forest land with hundreds of both temporary and permanently lived-in homes and cabins scattered throughout.  Being partially in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountain range the overstocked forests of the island are often tinder dry; seriously vulnerable to wildfires.  A catastrophic forest fire of California-like dimensions is an ever-present possibility on the island.

According to Kaj, the thin kerf, portable band sawmill he has owned and operated on Orcas Island and surrounding islands for nearly a quarter of a century plays an important part in supporting the sustainability aspect of his approach to building community.  “I met my first Wood-Mizer in 1994,” he comments.  “I was intrigued, then enamored, then became addicted as I realized what this machine could accomplish.  My Wood-Mizer provides an opportunity to include others in partnership as I pursue my passion.  The mill has allowed me to engage in a creative relationship with hundreds of people over time and, of course, it has allowed me to support myself as well.”

Kaj says in the early years as a Wood-Mizer owner he mostly operated “as a hobbyist,” though he slowly began to work for others as well.  In 2004, he acquired an interest in big timbers, an interest that eventually led him to obtain a general contractor’s license, membership in the Timber Framers Guild, and a Wood-Mizer LT40 HD.

“The Wood-Mizer is an incredible tool,” Kaj comments.  “It allows me to work with others to manifest their own dreams.  It enables them to stretch their own horizons and learn how to build things for themselves.”

Kaj’s passion for exploring forest sustainability is also supported by his Wood-Mizer. The San Juan Islands, of which Orcas is the largest, are the source of some of the finest, tight grain, Douglas fir available in the west, Kaj comments.  A hundred and twenty years ago, he says, most of the original island forest was harvested and began to regenerate.  Eighty or so years ago a second generation began to grow beneath the canopy of the first.  Those trees are marvelous for timbers and other wood fiber, being tight grained with a 20” maximum base tapering to 12” tips, but they also pose a health problem for the forest.  Working with landowners and certified arborists, Kaj sees to the necessary thinning of some forests to both enhance growth of the trees and to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic fire.  Kaj laughs, “In a sense I’m high-grading because the understory wood is tremendous and because I pay the highest price on the islands, but the work is also important as we strive to create healthy, sustainable forests for future generations.”

The Wood-Mizer has also been a key tool as Kaj seeks to expand his own community building skills.  His education as a Civil Structural Engineer at Oregon State University uniquely qualified him to lend his skills, and his sawmill, to what he calls “a legacy gift to the community.” Kaj and the dozens of friends and neighbors, donated most of a year’s time and energy building the Eastsound Village Park Stage On the Green in Eastsound, home to nearly half the island’s resident population.  The stage centers on four large, hand-peeled, cedar trees mounted on granite boulders and features the timber framer’s art throughout.  In 2008, the stage won the People’s Choice Honor Awards of the Washington State American Institute of Architects.  About half the wood for the structure was milled aboard Kaj’s LT40 in collaboration with another island heritage mill.

On the food sovereignty side of the sustainability issue, Kaj says that “food is a bridge between people, a way for people to work together.”  As a way to both build community and improve on-island production of foods, Kaj and three island friends established, in 2014, the Orcas Community Participatory Agriculture (Orcas CPA) program with Kaj as the land host.  

The CPA model exists, according to the group’s explanatory documentation, “To empower people to be creators, not just consumers,” of food.  Members garden as a community, “actively working, learning, and reaping rewards as a group.”  10-12 families pay $50 per month for nine months of the year and commit to working at least 12 hours per month in the garden.  To support the CPA, Kaj has provided a small facility where produce is canned, pickled, dried, or otherwise processed.

Never one to sit on his laurels, Kaj has been working over the past couple of years with University of Washington horticulturalists, studying the use of biochar in gardens.  The work has shown some promise regarding an ongoing issue for sawmills of all sizes: the disposal of waste wood.  At present, Kaj is manufacturing the biochar for the experimentation himself, using flitches from his own mill.  

The introduction of practically priced and efficient portable thin kerf sawmilling to the marketplace some thirty-five or so years ago launched a locally based, small business revolution in the forest products industry.  On Orcas Island, Kaj Enderlein stands as an example of the positive impact thin kerf mill owners can have on the sustainability of a community’s economy, sustainability, and overall quality of life.

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