CAVE JUNCTION — A newly minted 1.5 megawatt cogeneration plant capable of producing electricity for up to 1,500 homes was fired up Friday at the Rough & Ready Lumber Co. sawmill.

CAVE JUNCTION — A newly minted 1.5 megawatt cogeneration plant capable of producing electricity for up to 1,500 homes was fired up Friday at the Rough & Ready Lumber Co. sawmill.

In addition to producing electricity, the $6 million plant will create up to a dozen jobs, including two new jobs at the mill and seven to 10 jobs in the woods, said Jennifer Krauss Phillippi who, along with her husband Link Phillippi, manage the family-owned sawmill.

"We have a need for this — the main goal is to dry more high-quality lumber," she said, later adding, "This will secure the 85 jobs we have here. It will keep us competitive."

The new plant will help restore the health of the overstocked local forests by thinning stands while producing alternative energy which will be sold to the regional power grid, she said.

"It's exciting," she said of the new venture by the lumber firm her paternal grandparents started in 1922. The company has been based at its current site half a dozen miles south of Cave Junction since 1943.

Although the plant actually began operations Friday, a ceremonial startup will be held at 2:30 p.m. today with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican from Hood River, flipping the switch. Walden is a member of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Last week, he and U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., introduced a bill that would include woody biomass from public and private lands in the nation's new mandate to annually produce 36 billion gallons of biofuels.

Fifty percent of the fuel for Rough and Ready's plant will come from sawmill waste, known as "hog fuel," Phillippi said. The remainder will be from logging debris and forest stewardship projects aimed at thinning stands of overstocked forests, she added.

The new boiler will produce twice as much steam while producing 85 percent fewer particulates than the 30-year-old boiler used at the mill, she said.

"It'll be much cleaner than the one we had," she said of the $600,000 pollution-control device known as an "electrostatic precipitator" that has been installed in the new plant.

Mill operators hope there will be enough forest stewardship projects on local Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest lands to help keep the cogeneration plant running. The new plant needs logging debris and thinnings from about 2,000 acres annually to keep the cogeneration plant running, she said, noting that would be material outside of the hog fuel produced by the mill.

"We are also hoping this will make more sense than slash burning to industrial forest landowners," she said.

If the material is within 30 to 40 miles radius of the mill, it would be economically feasible to truck it to the plant, she said.

There are plenty of over-stocked stands on Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest land in the Illinois Valley area that could provide fuel for the plant, said Joel King, ranger in charge of the Wild Rivers Ranger District.

"This plant is a great statement about faith in future, in the community and demonstrating good stewardship," he said, adding, "If we can have self-supporting power from restoring the forests, why not?"

But some environmental activists are wary. While they support creating energy without using fossil fuels as well as thinning small-diameter trees from stands overgrown from a century of fire suppression, they have expressed concern the cogeneration plant could be used as an excuse for cutting larger old-growth trees they say are fire resistant.

"I think it's great that Rough and Ready wants to benefit forest health," said Joseph Vaile, conservation director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland. "The biomass will make it more efficient."

But Vaile, noting it is one of the few sawmills in the region still cutting large logs, urged the firm to remove it's large-log saw and concentrate on small-diameter material. The mill also has a saw for cutting small-diameter timber.

"They need to embrace the small-diameter program," he said.

But company officials say the new plant reflects Rough & Ready's support for ecologically sound stewardship in forest restoration projects.

"It's a small plant in terms of boiler plants — we sized it to meet our lumber drying needs," Phillippi said.

Because it is a small, family-owned company, it could not afford the cost of the cogeneration plant until Congress created financial incentives supporting renewable power from burning biomass, she said.

Rough & Ready is in a federal Empowerment Zone and an Oregon Enterprise Zone. Both are intended to stimulate economic development in areas of high unemployment.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.