January February 2005




“Waste Wood” Finds a Place of Honor

Porterbilt creates stunning roundwood buildings

By Barbara Coyner

Ron Porter recalls the devastating wildfires of 2000 sweeping through Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, and he winces. “The fires were about a mile from our plant and I went out and bought every sprinkler system I could find. I covered our whole operation round the clock with water. It was a scary time.” Happily, Porterbilt survived, and times are good now for the post and pole business started in 1965. Porter also points out that the stunning new Darby library nearby is something of a business card for him, as are a couple of kiosks in Utah that debuted during the 2002 Winter Olympics. Such roundwood buildings show off some new strategies for the community, he says. “It’s nice to be involved in these projects, because of course we’ve been working with roundwood for 40 years. With the library, about 50 people just came together and made it happen. Things just grew and grew, and it’s nice to see the focus coming back to resources management.”

Porter knows the good, the bad and the ugly of previous resource management that oftentimes wasted wood. He also realizes that the current buildup of small-diameter wood in the forests puts the area at risk of further wildfires. “The pendulum might be swinging back another way, especially with the Healthy Forests Initiative,” he says of the approach to forest thinning. “People see what Mother Nature can do and the high cost of fighting wildfires. They see the option of ‘no management’ and know what it means. We’re importing billions of board feet of lumber from Canada, while things get worse here. But maybe we’re seeing a turnaround.” Aturnaround is exactly what Porter is seeing. The lone survivor of five mom-and-pop-style post and pole operations in the area, he’s the likely candidate for several roundwood experiments.

Porter’s people at work on construction of Darby Library

He knows that lodgepole logs trucked from Elk City, Idaho are perfect for log home railings, furniture and beams for kiosks, picnic shelters and log accents, and he’s the man to mill the products. “Some of the logs coming in are no longer a viable product for the mills, because you can’t saw them into boards. They’ll crack. But these small logs are just beautiful for what we make of them.” Being creative with small-diameter roundwood wasn’t the initial business direction for Porterbilt.

Up until the log home expansion in the late 70s and early 80s, the mill turned logs to satisfy the agricultural market. Porter thought he’d died and gone to heaven when he saw that the skinny logs could fetch more of a clientele in log housing than in the boom and bust cycles of ag fencing. “In the early 80s, the log home business in the area really took off and the original house with four walls became bigger and bigger, so it needed safety railings for balconies and stairways. We began working year-round and I suddenly understood what ‘value added’ meant. Now it’s all about ‘utilization’ and every bit of that log that comes in on the truck is put to use.

In fact, the Darby school has a trailer under our chute to pick up the waste and use it in their new heating system [the school now heats with wood, thanks to the Fuels for Schools Program]. After 40 years, we’re actually getting paid for our waste. It’s like the old story about the butcher getting everything from the hog but the squeal.” With a crew of 12-14 employees, and some additional log peeling contractors, Porterbilt’s Morbark peeler goes nonstop, while two rounding machines make finished dowels as smooth as tabletops. Most of the specialized equipment was fabricated by Porter’s own people, after Peter Martin, an equipment builder from Superior, devised the initial layout. The mill operation works with 2-inch to 6-inch diameter logs, generally regarded as waste.

Porter relies on area loggers to bring him the goods, and stretches utilization to the max. These days, loggers in the Bitterroot Valley work the multi-product sales, he says, knowing that there’s a market for each part of the log, right down to the sawdust. “I deal with both loggers and nearby mills and that helps all of us. Each one picks what they need out of the timber sale and the logger can harvest it all and have a home for everything.” Of course not all is sweetness and light yet in the Bitterroot, and Porter says that overstocked federal forests still lurk as a wildfire threat. Yet, at the same time, they offer a potential resource to rekindle solid manufacturing jobs in the area.

He credits the Forest Service Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wisconsin, and its community development strategy under Sue LeVan, as real spark plugs in getting things moving again. The impressive Darby Library is the movement’s latest “show and tell” to illustrate the value of small-diameter roundwood as a viable product. Boasting that his grandmother came to the region in a covered wagon, Ron Porter has observed plenty in his years in Montana’s famous Bitterroot Valley. Ironically, the small-diameter roundwood that was once the ugly stepchild of the area’s timber industry is now his company’s bread and butter.


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This page was last updated on Wednesday, March 23, 2005