September October 2005



Salvaging Blackened Timberland

SDS Lumber Company performs award-winning salvage operation

By Kurt Glaeseman

The year 2003 brought a hot, dry July to the Columbia Gorge community of The Dalles, Ore. Locals won’t soon forget July 23: a lightning strike, a day of disarming calm, and then a west wind that blew it up. Fire! Dry grass and oak trees were the first to ignite, followed by north slope pockets of Note: Sheldon Ridge Fire area in foreground and Mount Hood in background. 80 to 100-year-old Doug fir. The community was in definite danger.

First to respond were logging crews from SDS Lumber Company, located across the Columbia in Bingen, Wash. Their mission was to protect SDS timber and also that of Longview Fibre, Hood River County, and Mount Hood National Forest. The fire backed up Mosier Creek and soon threatened the outlying communities of The Dalles. Jon Cole, SDS Forester, estimates that his company spent multiple days and about $80,000 helping the Oregon Department of Forestry fight and clean up the blaze, now known as the Sheldon Ridge Fire.

Note: Sheldo Ridge Fire area in foreground
and Mount Hood in background

Starting the Salvage Operation

The community breathed a collective sigh of relief, but SDS was shocked at the heavy toll: 9,000 acres total, and several hundred acres of burned timberland that demanded immediate attention."Our hand was forced," says SDS Head Forester Frank Backus. "The area hadn’t been logged because it was so rugged, but suddenly there was no economic choice. We had to rethink and act fast." Everyone knows about the slow pace and resultant waste on fire-ravaged federal lands, but SDS went into high gear. "We got our permits and were logging by Christmas. Sometimes it was hit-and-miss with the weather, but we had a significant number of logs yarded and decked before we could start hauling them out."

The basic steel for this salvage operation was a TSY 50 Thunderbird yarder, a Cat 235 log loader (which Backus referred to as "a good old hardworking dog"), a Thunderbird 1236 delimber, and the fleet of trucks that hauled logs back to the SDS mill in Bingen. The crew consisted of the operators of the yarder and the delimber and the loader, a chaser, a rigging slinger, a choker setter, and several cutters who felled tree length for the waiting yarder.

Problems were predictable: steep high lead, sliding rocks, dulled chains…and a sea of dust. The county roads were all dirt, so SDS hauled volumes of water on them as well as on their own new roads and crossings. Doug Thiesies, from the Oregon State Department in The Dalles, monitored and advised as the crew worked through and around the smaller side creeks that supported salvageable timber.

"It was a miserable summer for the yarder crew," says Backus. "They earned their pay, working hard every day with dirty clothes and blackened faces." He especially praises Logging Superintendent Ron Clark, who designed and built spurs, exerting a major effort to salvage the timber without undue damage to the environment.

Pine logs headed to Lewiston, ID via maritime barge from Portland, OR

Handling Charred Wood at the Mill

There were challenges when the logs entered the mill. "We tried to buck out charred wood," says Backus, "but it’s hard to get it all. When the salvaged Decked logs waiting to be processed at the SDS Lumber sawmill in Bingen, WA logs go into the processing facility, you contaminate it. There is zero tolerance for charcoal in chips designated for paper. Everything has to be thoroughly cleaned before processing green logs. We lost a lot of utility logs and residual chips, but the saw log component was still good."

Backus points out that in the post-fire strategy time was of the essence. Charred timber deteriorates fast, whether it’s on flat or steep ground. SDS had to start salvaging immediately, and they had no choice of easy or difficult terrain. "We would never have harvested all those units at one time," insists Backus, "but we were suddenly forced to because of the fire."

Decked logs waiting to be processed at the
SDS Lumber sawmill in Bingen, WA

The Right Company

How could a company react so quickly? SDS Lumber is a bit of an anomaly. It is a well-established, financially sound sawmill with its own timberland and logging crews and trucks…and a site on the Columbia River, complete with a tugboat to rent when SDS isn’t using it. The company could martial its own trained labor pool, mechanical resources, trucking fleet and mill production to cope with the aftermath of the Sheldon Ridge Fire.

SDS Lumber Company was founded in 1946 by brothers Wally and Bruce Stevenson and Frank Daubenspeck. Both Stevensons had served as naval lieutenant commanders and Daubenspeck had been the long-time foreman of their father’s mill, Broughton Lumber Company. The three partners contributed hard workand mutual respect, and the company flourished for many years from the nearby abundance of second-growth timber. Eventually SDS began investing in timberland, and today the company owns around 70 thousand acres in Oregon and Washington. The evolving mill currently has a plywood plant, a stud mill with two head rigs, a chip business, and home-produced electricity for sale. SDS has a history of quick reaction, high standards and common sense. They were able to absorb the cost of this unbudgeted disaster and to maximize any potential profit.

SDS Forester Jon Cole points out healthy growth.

Forest of Tomorrow

Once the logs were hauled from the Sheldon Ridge Fire area, replanting was done by L + B Reforestation from Philomath, Ore. Again it was an expensive operation — 150,000 young trees transported often in backpacks on rugged slopes ranging from 800 to 2000 feet. "Those contractors were excellent," says Cole. "We were lucky to have the best of the best for this difficult job."

Today the young trees are starting to show themselves on the hillsides. Most are Doug fir, but enough Ponderosa pines were added to mirror the previous generation of species. All were netted to protect them from deer damage. They were sheltered from competing weeds, grasses and brush by the judicious application of herbicides. Today the forest is in active renewal.

Frank Backus reflects on the Sheldon Ridge fire and salvage and reforestation: "We’ve heard the old criticism that logging an area like this is like mugging a burn victim. A lot of us believe that logging and reforestation is like putting salve on a burn victim.
We help. We get return from the land and then get it reforested. We left lots of snags and green trees. The fire is now history. Left on its own, we have no idea when we would have seen a new forest. The key is to take the effort and do it right."

Apparently the Oregon Department of Forestry agreed. SDS Lumber Company was the proud recipient of the 2004 Award for Excellence in Fire Salvage, Harvesting and Reforestation.

For more information, Foresters Frank Backus and Jon Cole can be reached at SDS Lumber Company, P.O. Box 266, Bingen, WA 98605. That number is (509) 493-2155.


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This page was last updated on Tuesday, November 15, 2005