Template for the Future?
Cascade, Idaho reinvents itself
as a smallwood town
By Barbara Coyner
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
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
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
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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