A question is humming around the edges of the Oregon Logging Conference this week, like the distant sound of a chain saw bucking firewood.
EUGENE, Ore. A question is humming around the edges of the Oregon Logging Conference this week, like the distant sound of a chain saw bucking firewood.
Can a small-time logger find a new living with tiny trees -- thinned from federal or private forests -- that are most commonly chipped for pulp or burned on slash heaps?
Now appears to be a good time for small operators to find niche markets for logs as small as 3 to 5 inches in diameter, a few Northwest firms are finding.
They're converting the tiny waste trees into products such as tongue-and-grove flooring for homes, produce bins for grocery stores and round-log stud or beam replacement in construction.
They're positioning themselves for the time when the federal government launches its promised thinning-for-forest-fire-reduction program on public forest land.
They're watching environmentalists demand an end to old growth logging on federal land in favor of thinning projects in second-growth forests also on federal land.
"It's a new day for loggers. The entrepreneurial spirit in small communities is re-emerging," said Jim Jungwirth, owner of Jefferson State Forest Products that produces grocery bins in Hayfork, Calif. "They're saying, 'The mill is gone. We're not dead. What are we doing to do?' " The Tricon Timber stud mill in St. Regis, Mont., turned to small log processing in 2003 when it hit a rough patch in its regular business. The mill is in the Lolo National Forest and depends on public timber sales for its log supply.
The company was in jeopardy, said Angelo Veris, assistant Tricon manager.
"Two of our main timber sales were federal and they were stuck in litigation," he said.
With the help of the Montana Community Development Corp., Tricon geared up to process trees as small as 3 inches in diameter into one-inch-thick flooring strips.
After the boards are kiln dried, the company ships them to other firms that manufacture them into tongue-and-groove flooring systems.
Now, trucks carrying as many as 250 toothpick-looking logs apiece trundle into the stud mill.
"We're really trying to develop the markets now," Veris said.
"As this thing progresses, it will be a good thing to have as a subsidy for our studs."
Dicey economics But it's tough to make money on tiny logs. It's troublesome and labor intensive to fell them, pull them into piles and load them onto trucks.
Economics favor larger logs.
"Bigger trees are easier to make money because you're handling the stem once and there's more there," said Lance Kling, corporate sales coordinator Eugene-based Papé Machinery. "Instead of doing five trees, you can do one with the same board feet."
But that balance is tipping a bit with productive new "cut to length" mechanical harvesters -- on display at the logging conference this weekend -- which can grab a tree, fell it, limb it, measure and cut it to precise lengths in less than a minute.
"It's a much faster, more efficient way to pump out more logs," Kling said.
"Anything you can do to gain economies of scale and handle more stems will make a product more profitable." Still, the operator would have to cut acres and acres to cover the cost of the "cut to length" machinery, which sells for $500,000 or so apiece.
So far, loggers in the Northwest aren't buying the equipment to cut the tiny trees -- and Kling doubts they ever will. But small-log advocates say the economics could change, for instance, if the federal government decides to pay loggers to thin as part of an effort to reduce the chances of big fires on federal lands.
Also, environmentalists are advocating thinning in old tree plantations on federal lands to open up and increase complexity in the forest.
The magnitude of the value added also may tip the scales, Jungwirth said, when logs that were once cut as boards and worth $240 a thousand board feet become worth $1,400 a thousand board feet as flooring.
"The loggers are prepared to say, 'If you can give me a decent price for this stuff, I will get it out for you,' " Jungwirth said.
"We've got to figure out how the little guy can live along side the big guy. I have to believe it's possible," he said.
The 67th annual Oregon Logging Conference gets under way today and continues through Saturday at the Lane Events Center. Public events are scheduled for Saturday:
9 a.m. to 1 p.m.: High school forestry competition, featuring cross-cut sawing, choker setting and log scaling
9 a.m. to 2 p.m.: State-of-the-art logging equipment plus family education and entertainment displays, including paper-making, simulated firefighting, birdhouse construction -- and visits from Smokey the Bear and Connie Fir
Information: www.oregonloggingconference.com or 686-9191
SMALL WOOD CONFERENCE
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