Friday, 19 April 2013 09:44

Official OK for pellet plant excites Urania folks

Thirteen years after Urania's biggest employer shut down, construction is nearing on what could be the world's largest wood pellet mill.

German Pellets GmbH will provide fewer than one-quarter of the 355 jobs lost when Louisiana-Pacific Corp. shut down the plywood and fiberboard mill on that site in 2002. But folks in tiny Urania, named by a turn-of-the-century lumberman after the Greek muse whose name meant "heavenly," are wildly enthusiastic about the project. The first post about it on the town's Facebook site began, "It's official!!!!!!"

Mayor Terri B. Corley said that when German Pellets was scouting the area, her son brought a representative to the drug store where she works. "He asked, 'Are you OK with the log trucks?' I said, 'You've got to be kidding. The first log truck that comes to the mill, there'll probably be a hundred people lined up on the street, just to see it.'"

They'll all be cheering, she said.

"We have a lot of people who work offshore who were in the wood industry. And a lot of people want to come back to the wood industry," she said.

The plant will be able to produce 1 million metric tons - about 1.1 million U.S. tons - of pellets a year, according to German Pellets. Georgia Biomass LLC, which bills its pellet factory in Waycross, Ga., as the world's largest, says it can make 750,000 metric tons of pellets a year.

People in Urania have kept an eye on the former pulpwood and fiber board mill site there since state officials said last May that German Pellets was considering it.

"We don't live but a mile from the plant. We've been kind of watching to see when some kind of activity was gonna go on. It'll mean a lot to our little town," said the mayor's mother-in-law, JoAnn Corley.

It was the wood industry that created Urania, a town of fewer than 800 residents - or about 1,300 if you count inmates of the LaSalle Parish Prison, as the Census Bureau does. Many permanent residents are retired, Corley said.

Henry E. Hardtner, called the father of forestry in the South, named Urania after buying land there in 1896, when he was 25 years old. Around 1905, he realized the dangers of clear-cutting and began insisting that lumbermen cut only trees at least a foot in diameter and leave at least four large trees per acre to re-seed the land.

The sign at the town limits reads "Town of Urania, home of reforestation."

Jeffrey Lasiter said he's a third-generation contract logger on nearly 60,000 acres of forest in Urania. "For every tree that's harvested, there's three to five planted in its place. ... We're farmers. We're taking care of the forest like it's supposed to be," he said.

The region's dense forests played a major part in German Pellets' decision to move to Urania, said Peter Leibold, manager of the German Pellets Group: "Once again, we have chosen a site with well-established wood supplies and logistics."

Lasiter, who is also on the town council in nearby Olla and on the economic development board for the Olla, Urania, Tullos, Standard Economic and Industrial Development District, said he's been told it takes 2.2 million tons of timber a year to generate 1 million tons of pellets.

"We have an abundance of roundwood. They call central Louisiana the wood basket of the South," Lasiter said.

Near Urania is what state and business officials say is Louisiana's largest stand of virgin timber, about 360 acres set aside for research when Urania Lumber Co. still owned 300,000 acres of forest and Yale University students came down each summer to study it.

It's a mixture of pine species, black gum, oak and other trees, Lasiter said.

"I would love to get that tract. But the people who own it have it all gated up," Corley said.

Lasiter said Louisiana-Pacific had an agreement with the state never to cut those trees. He did not know if the current owners have any such agreement.

The company that owns that land also owns the old Louisiana Pacific building across from Town Hall, Corley said. She said she asked about buying it, but the price was $150,000.

"Our budget is less than $200,000 a year," she said.

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