Ashland Mat uses forests products to protect ground

Hardwood logs await processing at Ashland Mat.    

 Wisconsin ranks number one for paper production and wood furniture manufacturing. The forestry industry as a whole provides approximately 64,000 jobs with an economic impact of $24.7 billion.

In Northwestern Wisconsin, the timber industry is a crucial component of the economic success. But, in addition to supplying paper mills, sawmills and building supply stores, the area’s forests are also helping the environment through production of a construction product that helps preserve forest integrity.

Ashland Mat LLC is located just south of Ashland. The company, which is a subsidiary of Beasley Forest Products, provides hardwood timber mats, also known as crane mats. They are made from hardwoods and are used as temporary roads, bridge decking, drill site pads and other construction projects within environmentally sensitive areas. For example, when a new power line needs to go through an area with soft soil, the mats will be laid out to protect ground cover, allowing for less environmental damage or disturbance. Other common construction projects include oil and gas pipelines, along with wind power and pipeline sites.

Beasley Forest Products manager Paul Ferre’ said increased interest in protecting the environment has resulted in an increased demand for these products.

“Over the last 15-20 years, the demand for mats has increased each year as projects go on and more regulatory agencies demand you have these mats to walk on instead of the ground. That’s what has created the demand,” he said.

That increased demand led Beasley Forest Products to buy the Ashland plant in 2012. Currently, 20 people are employed there. Beasley also owns several sawmills in Georgia, South Carolina and elsewhere in Wisconsin. Other operations within the company include a flooring plant, multiple hardwood swamp and pine logging operations.  Beasley operates 70 log trucks and 200 log trailers. They are also partners in three wood pellet mills, a biomass power plant and Yak Mat.

Ferre’ said the plant was attracted to Northwestern Wisconsin for a number of reasons, including the plant’s location.

“The way we seek to be the most competitive is to be the most efficient producers of crane mats. We also want to have the most efficient logistics. What I mean by that is from the time it is created to the time it gets to the customer – that’s important to us. That’s one of the reasons we are here in the northwoods because there is a measurable demand for mats right here in the region,” he said.

In addition, the ability to procure large quantities of hardwoods within 150-miles of Ashland helps keep production costs low. On average, Ferre’ said the company purchases about 10-million board feet of wood each year. And, they are buying wood others might not want.

“We need long logs, but the quality isn’t as important for us as it is for, say, a sawmill. We can take logs with knots in it or even a little of rot,” he said. “This allows us to take advantage of logs that other buyers might not want so it creates a new market for land owners to sell to.”

The mats are composed of hardwoods including oak, maple, ash and birch. While the company primarily produces mats, it also makes railroad crossties and switch ties, along with hardwood lumber. The bi-product from the wood is also marketed to a variety of local facilities that produce pellets, pulp and biomass.

This high product demand has resulted in a stronger and more stable regional timber market. The Bayfield County Forestry department is one of the area’s larger timber sellers. Forestry Administrator Jason Bodine said, “with the production of hardwood mats, hardwood lumber, chips and bark, Ashland Mat has provided a new and diverse local market for forest products.  A considerable amount of timber, originating from the Bayfield County Forest, is procured annually by Ashland Mat.  Diverse regional markets help to stabilize the industry and better insulate both the county and local loggers from fluctuating lumber prices.”

Ferre’ anticipates Ashland Mat will remain in the area for years to come.

“The location of Ashland Mat is designed to serve the customer base within 300-400 miles. Being in Ashland was a conscious decision on our end to meet our customers’ expectations. Prior to owning this operation, Beasley Forest Products had a customer base in the lake states. Our customers requested we have a more localized physical presence to meet their needs, short term and long term.”

While this explains why they initially invested in Ashland, the area’s strong timber industry is allowing them to be successful.

“There are a number of good things going on that make this operation successful. This is an established forest products marketplace with landowners growing sustainable, renewable timber – loggers cutting and harvesting this timber and a trucking operation to haul it, with a number of other mills to support it. It is a vertically integrated marketplace that is fairly mature and well-established.”

Ashland Chamber Director Mary McPhetridge said Beasley Forest Products is one more example of a company finding a competitive edge in the northwoods.

“We are fortunate to have a company like Ashland Mat that is finding innovative ways to utilize a sustainable and renewable resource in our region, and then market it throughout the lake states.”

Beth Probst is a freelance writer based in Iron River.