Sept Oct, 2003





Template for the Future?

Cascade, Idaho reinvents itself as a smallwood town

By Barbara Coyner

Cascade, Idaho is thinking small. Small as in small-diameter timber, or "smallwood." With the Boise Cascade mill gone, lock, stock and barrel, the town is turning to its own ingenuity, along with some outside help, to get the economy rolling again. It’s not easy to replace over 100 jobs, benefits and the extra boost a big employer adds to a town of nearly 1000, but Cascade’s city fathers aren’t ready to toss in the towel.

A log structure designed for fishery improvement makes use.

Instead they’re working with an innovative Washington-based company, Forest Concepts, turning excess small-diameter timber into land rehab products. "Cascade is trying to reinvent itself as a small-diameter timber town," says Steve Thorson, Forest Concept’s representative for business development. "We make big logs out of little logs," he explains, noting that the company makes erosion control dams, habitat logs, and log structures for riparian areas and waterways. "We take the material that is being thinned from the woods to reduce fire danger, and turn around and use it for forest rehabilitation, erosion control and improved water quality," he adds, emphasizing the full-circle approach.

Thorson is a veritable pit bull in forging the necessary business ties, and seems to have a host of influential people on speed dial on his cell phone. His tenacity makes the difference in getting a slice of the pie for Cascade. After all, numerous other communities in the Northwest talk the small-diameter lingo. But Thorson has his eye on the prize, which is a full-fledged small-diameter wood merchandising lot run by the City of Cascade. "What we see is an enclave of small businesses, all drawing from the same material source for their products," says Forest Concept’s Cascade Project Manager, Justin Maschhoff, who is also the company biologist. "There would be a 10-acre merchandising area, with potential business partners such as a post and rail outfit, another building rustic furniture, plus maybe someone making wooden candle holders or something like that. We see 10 to 15 businesses, all using smallwood and pulling from the pile. Cascade has considered us a prime anchor tenant, but we would like to involve as many others as possible because we seem to have unlimited raw material. This is wood farming, where we’re all tending our crops."

Forest Concepts personnel operate small-scale logging equipment to gather smallwood.

With ample raw material and even the blessing of some environmental groups, timber towns are testing the waters to find something to jumpstart sluggish rural economies. Maschhoff points to a recent editorial that suggests industry clusters, value-added products and an entrepreneurial spirit can all contribute to the envisioned dynamic rural economy. "That’s what we’re doing at Cascade," he says of the mix of entrepreneurial spirit and business diversity. "It’s dead on." Maschhoff and Thorson credit Jim Dooley, Forest Concept’s founder and brain trust, as the initiator who got things moving. Dooley designed the Flow Check dam and other habitat restoration and erosion control items, connecting biological need with engineering solutions.

Thorson’s business contacts add the "make it happen" thrust to the company, and he readily pounced on the Cascade situation once he heard of the mill closing. Proving rural economic development is something of a contact sport, Thorson and Dooley linked up, leveraged grant-writing talent, Fire Plan money and local initiative, and hatched a plan. The idea? Set up an eight-week demo project at Cascade to build Dooley’s dams out of excess lodgepole choking the woods of central Idaho. "Originally we had the eight-week demo set up, but we saw the good labor pool we had at Cascade, plus all the raw material, so we chose to stay on," says Maschhoff. "We’re coming up on our third year now and see ourselves as a catalyst that has helped Cascade get farther along than they might have. We’ve kept two people full-time for eight months a year and hope to get things going year-round."

Justin Maschhoff shows off the portability of his company's production equipment, making it easy to retrieve small-diameter wood and process it on-site.

The bottleneck to year-round production is mostly the cash flow issue. Forest Concepts has lobbied the Forest Service to stack up an inventory of the dams and other restoration items just as the fire center at Boise stockpiles food and firefighting equipment. Thorson predictably had to give that approach a political push, and Senator Mike Crapo willingly lent the assist, but inventory and required official channels haven’t entirely meshed yet. Acquiring federal timber also means following cumbersome protocol, even with enviro blessing, so Cascade leaders hope the Forest Service can operate on a stewardship basis. That would make an end run around gridlock and expensive environmental analysis.

Meanwhile, back on the ground, Marv Allen and Tom Rich are the lucky candidates who snagged jobs in the demo phase and have stayed on. Allen, a third generation Cascade logger who spent five years at the mill before it closed, admits logging has changed plenty. "They’ve locked up all the big trees in the back country and left us to log the smaller stuff," Allen assesses. "All that’s left is the little stuff and you’ve got to do something with it." So is Allen back in the woods with a chainsaw? Hardly. Instead, he’s often indoors, connecting 7 to 8-foot lengths, each up to about 5 inches in diameter, into cylinders with spars and wedges.

The dams utilize centuries old furniture building techniques to fasten together. Once set out in the woods, either on hillsides or as gully plugs, they trap sediment and halt erosion, eventually biodegrading back into the landscape. Thorson says that the dams can actually be assembled in the woods, and the production line, start to finish, is fairly portable. "When we go to the woods to get the logs, the Forest Service has already thinned the area," Allen says. "The pieces are already in 8-foot lengths and I use little hand tongs. We know what size we want, and I grab the size and drag it to the road (he jokes that he has become the human skidder in this operation). There’s a lot of other stuff left that others could salvage for posts and fences and we use maybe a third to a fourth of what’s there."

Forest Service erosion control specialist Bill Elliot, based at Moscow’s Rocky Mountain Research Lab, says the dams and other restoration devices remain somewhat untested over time, but the concepts hold definite appeal as the West tackles forest restoration. "We try to monitor the effectiveness of the erosion control barriers, but we haven’t been able to measure things totally. They’re effective at some sites and at some not. I know Forest Concepts has worked a lot more with BLM and that things are working out well in many of those areas. We’re always looking for new, non-traditional ideas, and it’s a new era in timber in the West. We have so much small-diameter timber that we really have to develop commercial uses as a society. This is something that Jim Dooley is doing with his alternative products."

As Cascade’s Mayor Larry Walters works hand in glove with Forest Concepts, furnishing manufacturing space and official endorsement, the rest of the team focuses on each specific task. Two jobs are a far cry from 200, but Thorson expects the reinvention of Cascade, Idaho to take time. "The trick is to get some cash flowing, keep some people employed, then let the city go to work with things," Thorson assesses. "This isn’t just a wood products deal, but community development and economic development. What’s exciting is that as we implement thinnings, we’re completing the watershed cycle by putting these products back on the land. As a town, Cascade has given us huge support and we’re making an opportunity to create good quality jobs. I’ve told people recently that if the Forest Service or the BLM gives us an order for 100 truckloads, I’ll put 20 people to work in Cascade." TW

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This page was last updated on Tuesday, September 28, 2004