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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Logless Mill

Air Date: Week of

V.J. Gibson of Oregon's Jefferson Public Radio reports from Mt. Shasta, California on the Pacific Northwest's first sawmill that re-mills used wood.


CURWOOD: When Europeans first began colonizing what would become the United States, there were over a billion acres of forest. A third was simply cleared away, and over time all but ten or fifteen percent of the rest was altered by logging. Most of our remaining virgin forest is in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, where increasingly, loggers are running out of logs and into determined opposition from environmentalists. The old-growth squeeze has put pressure on the Northwest's economy, and a number of sawmills have gone out of business. But one mill in Northern California sees a booming future without logs. V. J. Gibson of Jefferson Public Radio has our report.

(Sound of sawmill)

GIBSON: Jefferson Lumber, lying in the shadow of northern California's legendary Mt. Shasta, appears to be an ordinary sawmill. There's wood stacked everywhere, and forklifts shuttle it from pile to pile. But a closer look reveals two extraordinary differences. There are no raw logs and no log trucks. Instead of raw logs, huge reclaimed beams feed the saw, and what emerges is fresh, construction-grade wood.

(Saw sounds up and under)

Jefferson Lumber is the first and only mill in the Northwest that recycles old-growth wood -- wood that comes from sawmills built around the turn of the century, closed since the early '80's, and recently dismantled. Erica Carpenter owns Jefferson Lumber with her partner, Richard McFarland.

CARPENTER: The contractors who take buildings like this down often pay 50 to 100 thousand dollars in landfill costs per job to put this stuff into landfills where it just sits. And it's a resource that needs to be reused -- it's like 2x4 framing lumber and old windows and old doors, things that right now just get smashed in the wrecking process.

GIBSON: The mill's office receives constant inquiries from clients and the curious. Carpenter says the biggest part of her job is educating everyone, from demolition contractors to potential customers. Many people have never heard of recycled lumber. Often they imagine dirty old boards with nails sticking out of them.

CARPENTER: They envision cracked, warped old siding that's coming off a fallen-down old building and what we're offering to the public looks like new lumber.

GIBSON: Custom tools are the key to lumber recycling. A crew in one corner of the yard runs metal detectors over the wood, to sniff out buried treasure.

(Sound of metal extractor and detector)

GIBSON: Weird-looking tools, like nightmare dental equipment, pull nails, knife blades, and bullets from the ancient beams. Metal extraction makes the cost of recycled wood equal to or slightly higher than new lumber, but Carpenter and McFarland say the dryness and density make it a superior product. Forestry economist Paul Einger has been in the wood products industry for more than 30 years. He says the value of all wood has gone up, and that makes it worthwhile to reuse it.

EINGER: One only need look at the price of wood products today. With a very modest demand, very modest number of housing starts, we have the highest prices we've ever had in history, way above anything that would be justified by the market demands in a normal situation.

GIBSON: Einger says that's helped create a market for remanufactured materials that will be viable as long as the supply lasts. Jefferson Lumber's co-owner Richard McFarland believes recycling can bridge the gap between the high demand for quality lumber and the shrinking supply of old-growth timber in the forest.

McFARLAND: I see a time not too far off when it becomes real feasible to buy old 2x4's and turn them into flooring or paneling, old 1-by siding and turn it into cabinet-grade lumber, and I think there'll be a time in the future when they'll tear down a house that maybe is in the way of some development and they'll reuse all those 2x4's. They'll either use them for framing or they'll turn them into ornamental paneling, there would be a use for it.

GIBSON: And in a region where the forest-dependent economy is seriously depressed, lumber recycling can provide jobs for workers displaced by the timber crisis. For its part, Jefferson Lumber plans to start salvaging smaller and smaller dimensions of wood and to use more of its own waste wood for flooring, paneling and molding. McFarland and Carpenter say new interest in remanufactured materials is growing exponentially. They plan to manufacture their metal-extraction tools for others who see the potential of lumber recycling and the wisdom of developing environmentally sound industry.

In Mt. Shasta, California, I'm V. J. Gibson for Living on Earth.



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