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Exports = Revenue And Jobs
By Jack Petree
“When we export one shipload of logs per month, we create about the same number of high wage jobs in the timber industry that a pretty good sized sawmill provides,” says Dave Westerlund, a partner in Westerlund Log Handlers.
“When you sit down and figure out how many loggers, truck drivers, equipment operators, foresters, and others are employed as a result of our log export business, the totals add up pretty quick. Then, when you consider money is flowing from China and other countries into the pockets of American workers, instead of the other way around, you get a pretty good feeling about what this company is doing for our community beyond just the everyday struggle to survive as a business.”
Dave and Westerlund Log Handler’s other partner, Roger Nance, point out their business is providing an especially invaluable service to the forest products industry in 2011. “The housing markets are down and not expected to recover for some time,” they point out. “Mills have closed, and that has had a devastating impact on landowners, harvesting firms, and everyone else in the industry. We think we play an important part in bridging the economic gap for a lot of people during this time of recession.”
Dave is a fourth generation logger with deep roots in the west coast timber industry. His own adventure began in the 1980s when, on his own after his father retired, he began logging with one machine in Forks, Wash., then built his firm into one running four sides. In the mid to late 1990s, Dave began to look at the export market, beginning with a single “small container.”
Many believed that industry and tourism couldn’t exist at the same port. Things are turning around. In some cases the log handling is actually a tourist attraction.
Westerlund Log Handlers was founded in 2009, a natural outgrowth of Dave’s earlier work. Dave partnered in the enterprise with Roger Nance who had been Dave’s banker and friend for several years.
“I liked how aggressive Roger had been as regional manager of the bank I worked with, so I was preparing to ask Roger to join forces with me when he called and asked if I’d be interested in partnering up with him,” says Dave.
The partnership has worked out well. Both partners have responsibilities that utilize their respective talents to benefit the partnership, and they don’t interfere with each other. “Roger knew the potential this company had, and I needed someone who could handle the messes I make,” he laughs. “We don’t cross each other’s lines too much. Roger handles the business end, customer relations, and those kinds of things, and I handle things on the ground. We’re both supported by our timber forester, Alan Brunstead. He’s got a forestry degree, a finance degree, an engineering background, and he was Resource Manager for Roseburg Lumber for 16 years. Between the three of us, there isn’t much we haven’t seen before.”
Roger Nance (left) and Dave Westerlund partner in the Westerlund Log Handlers operation. A Nicholson 44” debarker is the centerpiece of Westerlund’s Lewis and Clark yard. Stems are delivered here from the harvest site.
The biggest challenge Westerlund Log Handlers faced in establishing and running a log export business was one that those outside the export business probably wouldn’t expect: finding a place to stockpile logs and a berth to load and ship from.
The answer turned out to be Astoria, Ore., but the process wasn’t easy. Eventually, Dave and Roger had to have help from Oregon’s legislature to finally get permission to ship logs from the Port of Astoria.
The problem Westerlund faced is common to ports up and down the west coast of the United States: gentrification. Facilities that were once active, working ports dedicated to shipping, the fishing industry, and other industrial pursuits have turned to “boutique tourism” in the hope those once vibrant ports could be brought back to life.
“There has been a feeling that heavy industry and tourism cannot coexist well,” Roger says. “That bias was almost insurmountable when we tried to establish our Pier #1 log yard as a base from which to ship our product. We looked at our effort as one getting people back to work, but some were afraid we would get in the way of the tourists.”
Today, Roger says, those who may have believed a port can exist on tourism alone are coming around to an understanding of the part industry can play not only in providing jobs and revenue for a port but in supporting the very tourism some thought would be harmed by allowing a fully functioning shipping terminal.
“We’re getting nothing but positive feedback,” Roger says. “Last week we had a real first. We were loading logs while a cruise ship sailed into port. From everything we’ve heard, the tourists aboard the ship loved watching the action. Watching the hustle and bustle of workers going about their business is part of the whole experience to a tourist.”
Watching logs being loaded onto a ship from the rail of a cruise vessel, tourists see only a part of the total effort that goes into managing an export log business.
Logs processed at Westerlund’s Lewis and Clark yard are trucked to the Pier #1 log yard in Astoria for processing, sorting, storage prior to shipping and then loading onto ships bound for Pacific ports. The pier will typically have about 4 million feet stored and ready for shipping.
Trees to Port
In Westerlund’s case the process begins, as with any other log to lumber operation, with the purchase of logs from forestland owners.
Once purchased, trees are harvested by logging contractors then trucked to a 20-acre log yard. At any one time, about 12 million feet of logs will be arriving at, are processed at, or are stored at the yard.
At the yard, the logs are scaled by an independent scaling contractor then sorted depending on the destination. Logs destined for the China market, for example, are debarked before shipment while logs going to other destinations are not.
If debarking is required, logs are forwarded to a Nicholson 44” debarker prior to being readied for the shipment pier.
Once prepared for shipment, logs are loaded onto trucks and moved to a pier in Astoria, a half dozen miles away. Usually, Dave says, about 4 million feet are stored at the pier in preparation for loading onto a ship.
Taking a log from delivery to being loaded on a ship is equipment intensive. Between the two yards, Westerlund runs thirteen WA 600 Komatsu wheel loaders and two 988 Cat wheel loaders as well as nine shovels including seven Cats, one Komatsu, and a Link-Belt.
Distance and the opportunity to work with people with a variety of cultural backgrounds add spice to the daily task of working the export log markets. Dave and Roger agree that the business is capital intensive and requires constant attention to the needs of the customer.
“The landowners and contractors on this side of the ocean want to be paid promptly and fully,” Dave says, “while the time and distance involved in getting a log to the end user overseas adds weeks and months to the equation. There can be a long interval between the time we’re paying for a log and the receipt of our own payment for that same log. We’re fortunate to have someone who understands the financial markets as well as Roger does as part of the company.”
A Good Name
For his own part, Dave says, he guards the reputation of his company zealously. “You have to pay attention to every detail, because you have people counting on you,” he says. “And to us, it is important to make sure we treat the little guys in the business with as much care and concern as we treat the big timber interests. In this business, reputation is everything.”
Despite the hectic nature of the business, the significant financial risks, and the need to be intimately aware of every detail, every day, both Dave and Roger say they wouldn’t be doing anything else at this time in the forest products industry.
“Like anyone else, we are oriented to making a profit and doing well,” Dave says. Beyond that however, the two men contend, is the ability to keep men and women working at high wage jobs during a time of recession. “We’re proud of what this business gives to the community,” they say.