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Innovative Companies Help Thin Forests with Specialty Wood Products

ALBUQUERQUE - Mountainair signmaker Phil Archuleta has been so successful in turning scrubby trees like piņon and juniper into high-quality wood products that the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked him to share his story with agricultural educators and specialists from around the country.



Phil Archuleta, chief executive of P&M Signs, left, and marketing specialist John Youngquist were exhibitors at the Third National Small Farm Conference in Albuquerque Sept. 17-20. Archuleta, whose company earns about $1.3 million in gross annual revenue for signs made from a new, durable wood product that he invented, spoke to participants about alternative wood products as part of a panel session on increasing profits for woodlot owners. (09/20/2002) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

Archuleta, owner of P&M Signs and P&M Plastics, is earning about $1.3 million in gross annual revenue and employing 17 full-time workers thanks to a new, durable wood product he invented called Altree. A composite of wood and recycled plastic, Altree provides a profitable outlet for forest-thinning byproducts and for waste plastic that would otherwise end up in landfills.

"We get wood chips from private landowners and contractors who are thinning the forests in Albuquerque's East Mountain area, and we get recycled plastic jugs from suppliers in the city," Archuleta said. "We grind the materials down into fine little pieces and then pass it through a processor to clean out all the dirt. The materials are then melted down, fused and compressed into a shiny, beautiful board."
Archuleta named it Altree because he uses the entire tree, including branches, pine needles and leaves.

Archuleta was one of three presenters on a panel about alternative wood products at the Third National Small Farm Conference in Albuquerque from Sept. 17-20. About 40 conference participants attended the workshop, which focused on methods to help woodlot owners maximize their returns.

The conference, sponsored by the USDA and hosted by New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, offered a variety of seminars on creative ways to increase profits for small-scale agricultural producers.

Archuleta developed his new product with help from the U.S. Forest Service and other state and federal agencies that are promoting innovative uses of low-quality woods and small-diameter trees to provide more incentive for commercial thinning of overcrowded forests.

"It took us about four years, but with help from chemists and specialists at the USDA's Forest Product Laboratory in Madison, Wis., we developed a process to crush woody shrubs and plastic milk jugs together into a beautiful-looking, durable wood that is noncorrosive, parasite- and mildew-resistant, and that stands up in all weather conditions," Archuleta said during the panel discussion. "Now we're processing the wood into signs under contract with the USDA and other state and federal agencies."

Panelist Mark Knaebe, a researcher with the Forest Products Lab, said USDA is testing a wide variety of value-added wood products, like Archuleta's Altree. "We want to help companies find new, innovative uses for low-quality trees," he said.

Madison-based Sustainable Woods Cooperative is another example of the kinds of new specialty wood businesses sprouting up. Formed four years ago, the cooperative buys low-quality, small-diameter logs from landowners who, as members of the cooperative, are committed to environmentally friendly land management practices, said Kent Prather, another panelist and cooperative founder.

"We buy the wood from landowners who carefully choose the trees they cut to improve the forest ecosystem," Prather said. "It's low-value wood that cooperative members are unable to sell elsewhere. We mill it and convert it to specialty woods for flooring and paneling, and then share final product proceeds with co-op members. The landowners get paid twice, for the raw material and for the value-added product."

Sustainable Woods was the first cooperative of its kind, but Prather said hundreds of similar ventures are now forming throughout the West and in Canada.

In Archuleta's case, in addition to the USDA, NMSU's engineering department and Sandia National Laboratory also helped him develop a custom extruder head to flatten the fused wood and plastic before it's compressed into Altree.

The company has contracts to produce thousands of signs and emblems for USDA agencies and other government institutions. P&M Signs is also aggressively marketing to private firms. Within two years, Archuleta expects to have about 40 employees and about $5 million in annual revenue.

"When the housing industry sees what an attractive table or counter top it makes, we expect the orders to start rolling in," he said.