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Oregon’s East Fork Lumber Company relies on the changing supply of salvage lumber to stay in business

By Tim Jewett

For family-owned East Fork Lumber Company of Norway, Ore., navigating an ever-changing supply of raw materials has been one key to success. Owner Bob Sproul has chased a dynamic series of market conditions, regulatory trends, and natural disasters, in order to secure logs for the mill he founded in 1982. Since launching his company, the majority of logs that supply the mill come from salvaged timber; trees killed by fire or blown down by high winds, and “dead and down” trees leftover from previously logged sites.

Sproul’s mill, near the southern Oregon coast, employs fifteen full-time workers to produce two million board feet of cut-to-order lumber annually. Requiring only a small number of logs to meet his output needs, Sproul explains why his company is interested in salvage timber, “Often the salvage sales are small sales, which are affordable to a smaller company like ours.”


The Green Advantage

There is also a psychological advantage to his products. Sproul notes that the number ofenvironmentally conscious customers is increasing as “green” building practices gain in popularity. “There is a market out there for people who don’t want to buy live trees,” he says. “They like the idea that it’s coming from trees that are already dead.”

Sproul, whose business is dependent on a diminishing supply of old growth logs, as well as rare Western Red Cedar and Port Orford Cedar, has been resourceful in finding his raw materials. Describing his company’s history of procuring logs, Sproul says, “We’re used to making lead into gold.”

Sproul first identified the demand for his specialty wood products while working as a builder. Today, he produces a full range of cedar products and specializes in large timbers (mostly 8x8”, 10x16”, and 10x12” up to 40’ long). Ninetyfive percent of the timbers are used in exposed applications, where they offer both structural and cosmetic advantages over glue lam beams. His products are distributed throughout the United States.

At East Fork Lumber Company saw operator Ed Jacobsen cuts an old growth Douglas Fir log salvaged from the Biscuit Fire, April 5, 2006.


Starting Out with Cedar

In its earliest years, Sproul’s business was milling Port Orford Cedar, small export-reject logs that Japan didn’t want because the dead trees were too oily and had too many defects. His supply of logs came from “dead and down” trees in logged areas, as well as the log yards of other companies.

After three years in business, Sproul developed a relationship with a salvage logger in his area. “That allowed us to buy higher-grade old growth logs,” he says. “Almost all were blow-down Douglas Fir.” The mill’s existing equipment was able to handle the bigger trees and the small operation didn’t need a huge volume of logs.


Supply Changes in the ‘90s

Sproul’s business grew for a decade before changes in the supply of his raw materials forced the mill to alter its buying habits. “We had a steady supply of logs until the early 90’s,” Sproul says, when logging was significantly restricted on Federal Lands by the Northwest Forest plan. Adapting to the new regulatory environment, he began buying his logs from the yards of private companies and using fewer salvaged logs.

In the late 1990’s Sproul tapped yet another source for logs. With Federal forests off limits, he was able to buy blow-down salvage trees from Oregon state forestlands. Then, in 2002, a natural disaster sparked yet another change in Sproul’s business. The Biscuit fire, among the largest in the nation’s history, scorched nearly a half-million acres of forest in Southwest Oregon. To aid a depressed local economy the Forest Service auctioned off a small portion of the dead timber.

At East Fork Lumber Company Erik Clauson assists the saw operator as they mill an old growth Douglas Fir log salvaged from the Biscuit Fire.


The Good and the Bad

For East Fork Lumber Company, the Biscuit fire was a mixed blessing. “It’s sad. It never should have happened,” Sproul says. “But, it is a way to get a resource we need.” In September of 2003 he began salvaging hazard trees along the road and today all of the mill’s logs are coming from the Biscuit fire.

The logs came from the Indy Fire Salvage sale above the Illinois River. The130 acre unit provided 6 million board feet of wood from Douglas fir trees 150 to 400 years old. This new supply of salvaged old growth logs from the Biscuit fire delivered economic success for Sproul as he capitalized on the re-emerging market for large timbers.


Milling Machinery

East Fork Lumber Company owner Bob Sproul.

Sproul launched his business with a Mighty Might 8 by12 portable saw and a Euclid L20 loader. Originally, the saw was powered by a Volkswagen engine. “We used to burn them up regularly and then rebuild them,” he says, referring to the car motor. “Then we went to electric motors because they are more powerful and more reliable.”

In the mid-80s, to meet the demands of his market, he installed a small, shop-built log mill — a stationary saw with a carriage. A 52-inch circular saw blade cut small cedar logs into timbers up to 20” long.

Early in the 1990’s, the Mighty Might was replaced with a shop-built portable saw that is still in use today. The new saw gave them the ability to cut timbers up to 12x16” and 40 feet long. It also allowed East Fork Lumber to develop a market niche in large fir andcedar timbers. At the same time, Sproul put in a Yates American band saw re-saw with a line bar. This allowed the mill to cut more products more efficiently.

The mill’s current fleet of materials movers includes two Cat 966 loaders, a Fiat Allis 645B loader, and 4 Hysters of varying sizes.

For fifteen years a Salem 58” chipper has been turning Sproul’s scrap into hog fuel, a revenue producer
for the company.


East Fork Lumber Company Erik Clauson pulls the bark from an old growth Douglas Fir log salvaged from the Biscuit Fire.

Facing Obstacles

As Sproul is quick to attest, working with the salvage timber in the Biscuit fire is not without its challenges. It has required him to use new financing techniques. “In the beginning we just went real slow, using our own money,” he says. But because the Forest Service required large sums of money up front to buy the burned trees, he had to secure bank loans.

A potentially more dangerous problem arises from spikes driven into trees by environmental activists. Add to Sproul’s cost of doing business a $400 metal detector for scanning logs before they go through the mill. The hand-held unit has located many large nails and prevented accidents at the mill.

The Biscuit fire ignited fierce battles between the logging industry and the environmental community, the results of which have included confrontations in the forests and gridlock in the government. At the heart of the disputes are disagreements about the best ways to manage and regenerate the burned forests.

Sproul wishes that much more of the burned timber were made available to local businesses. “There is enough salvage timber on the ground to supply ten mills like mine in the local area,” he says. And referring to the decay-resistant cedars he says, “Those standing trees may last 80 years. We could log a load a day for the next ten years and keep our mill going.”

What timber will find its way into East Fork Lumber — only the future can tell.



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This page was last updated on Wednesday, April 25, 2007