Sept, 2001





Growing a New Hardwood Market 
Potlatch Transitions from Pulp to Saw Timber

By Barbara Coyner

Out on the arid flats of eastern Oregon, the Potlatch Corporation is hatching a new idea. The brainchild currently drinks enough water each minute to fill 5,500 bathtubs and covers 17,000 acres. What is this innovative and "thirsty" inspiration? A massive hybrid poplar plantation. The game plan has changed since Potlatch started these new plantations in 1994. Back then, the plan was to grow forests of the fast-growing hardwood species (it grows about ten feet per year in height) as a source of pulp fiber to keep company mills churning. Trouble was, nobody could see that pulp prices were headed south just as all those acres of trees were headed north. 

Enter Plan B: transform pulp plantations into saw log farms. Risky business for a traditional softwood producer, but then Potlatch has turned problems into profits before. In the 30's, for example, the company turned useless mountains of sawdust into handy Prest-O-Logs, so why not turn a pulp chip oversupply into quality hardwood saw materials? "This is all new to us," says plantation production superintendent Pat Moore of the company's new direction. "We're building the bicycle as we're riding. If only they'd give us some handlebars." 

The Timbco 820D forwarder with clambunk gathers the stems with ease

Catherine Mater of Mater Engineering in Corvallis, Ore., concurs that Potlatch is leading the industry into relatively unexplored territory, but it's not going in blindly. Mater, hired as a key consultant in the project, says, "Introducing a new species into the solid wood market is never easy. It requires good timing, good facts and good positioning. Potlatch has strategically invested in each of these through tracking anticipated depletions of quality western hardwoods and softwoods, conducting extensive market research, and investing in FSC (Forest Stewardship Certification)." Moore brings to the project his strong background in timber, along with experience as a logging engineer, logging equipment salesman, and businessman. But hardwood tree farming on the dry flatlands offers a different twist, and so does the evolving market strategy. 

However, Moore and Greg Uhlorn, farm site manager, take the new direction in stride, noting hybrid poplar's value as a species worthy of furniture building, veneer, cabinetry and other non-structural applications. After cranking out 200,000 log board feet of hybrid poplar, testing it in over half a dozen mills and exploring various marketing options, the two know what they want. "We're looking at a ten to eleven year rotation, 11 to 12 inches on the stump and an eight-inch by 32-foot long log," says Moore. "It should have excellent form, be straight and clear and limb-free up to 22 feet. We're looking at an annual cut of 41 mm log board feet by 2005." 

Potlatch contracts with neighboring Boise Cascade to process chip fiber with a chain flail.

Year round access and cutting are a logger's dream, and Bryan Broadfoot says that being the contract logger on the plantation means he can skip the long commute to the woods and make better use of his time. He's in on the project as much as Moore and Uhlorn, banking much of his logging company's future on the Potlatch transition. "I think this project has a valid future," says Broadfoot. "If they'd have stayed with pulp, I would be less positive about things. This wood is easy to get and if Potlatch goes after the hardwood market, this could really increase the value per acre over the pulp market. 

They're really going to be onto something if they get into the hardwood markets." Uhlorn, who tends 19,000 miles of drip tubing and endless rows of trees, mentions the goal of FSC certification as a big draw for marketing, and fortunately there aren't any big changes required for the procedure. With the switch to saw material production, Uhlorn says the farm is now thinning its stock and not planting as dense in new areas. The trees are mowed or sprayed for weeds the first year, sprayed before the leaves flush out the second year, and by the third year, the canopy pretty much discourages weeds. 

Broadfoot Logging uses a Timbco 820D with 16-inch Ryan shear to harvest the pulp, as Potlatch Corportation thins its hybrid poplar stands. Broadfoot will switch to a Timbco 820 buncher when the company starts harvesting saw logs.

The intense management makes it easy to document for FSC certification and chain of custody for choosy customers.  Mater notes that prior to 1999, the projected demand for certified wood products in the United States was less than 2 percent of total wood product flow. Now, however, buyer preference announcements for retailers such as Home Depot and Lowes indicate that the United States has the largest demand for certified wood products in the world, with demand projected at 25 percent of total US solid wood products flow. No small potatoes in the Potlatch decision to go with FSC. But supply and FSC certification aren't the only positive attributes of the farm. Moore notes that Interstate I-84 is right next-door, as are good rail shipping lines and barge lines along the Columbia River. 

Trials at mills such as Kinzua and Columbia Forest Products in Oregon, Vaagen Brothers in Washington, and others, show that the logs can go through traditional debarkers and other mill equipment quite successfully. The wood machines well, can be laminated or fingerjointed, and takes a finish with no problem, even on the heartwood. "There is a lot of potential here," says Moore. "It's not just a chip fiber, but there are a lot of hurdles we have to get over. There's a whole product line that can be built around this tree." While Potlatch considers partnership opportunities, and explores on-site milling and custom log manufacturing options, Mater Engineering is busy linking up with value-added opportunities to use the product. 

Pat Moore, plantation production superintendent (right), catches up with Brian Broadfoot, who is logging the hybrid poplar stands for Potlatch Corporation. Because the ground is flat Broadfoot can even log on rainy days, which keeps his crews busy when other loggers are down.

Some in the industry think it's like putting lipstick on a pig, but what Potlatch and Mater realize is that the pig is looking good. That means steady and rewarding work for Broadfoot Logging out of Hermiston. When Broadfoot landed the contract, he put a Timbco 820D to work, bringing chip fiber out. Adjacent neighbor Boise Cascade contracts for the chipping, using a chain flail for on-site processing. "When we started out, we cut and skidded with one machine," Broadfoot says. "We later found it was more productive to cut with one machine and skid with another. 

Greg Uhlorn, farm site manager, shows the breeding stock.

There's additional cost with less hours on each machine, but it worked better." Broadfoot has been using the Timbco 820D with a 16- inch Ryan shear to harvest pulp, and works the other Timbco 820D forwarder with a grapple and a clambunk on it to gather the stems. The rubber-tired duo seems to perform better than track machines, according to Broadfoot. "If I'd have had track machines, I'd have had to do a complete undercarriage after a year because the sand is so abrasive. They do, after all, use sand to make sandpaper. 

Pat Moore illustrates the growth of a 9-year-old hybrid poplar at dbh.

But the only metal I have touching the ground is the shear and I've lost 3/4 inches of the metal. It's gone. In one year, I've used six sets of shear knives, but I've only had one flat tire and no tire replacements. Some of these discoveries have been accidental, because this plantation concept is so different." Because of the transition from pulp to saw material, Broadfoot plans to adapt his machinery to make the clean cut required for saw logs. That means doing away with the shears. Instead, he'll bring on a Timbco 820 buncher, which has different balance points. "It's a bigger machine that can handle a heavier boom. 

Mater engineering's Margaret Puckette constructed a small box to promote the building quality of hybrid poplar.

The goal is to cut with a saw instead of a shear, because a sheer pulls the fiber. You need a saw for a clean cut on saw material."  Broadfoot has had to adapt before and considers it all part of the challenge. He's changed cutting patterns five times - at the company's request - to deal with stumps and cleanup. Cut and skid patterns have to factor in replanting, with tractors coming in and out, and infield biomass has to be reduced to a piece size of less than two inches in diameter. 

"It gives a whole new meaning to the word clean," Broadfoot quips. The company has tried a variety of methods to remove the debris, most being extremely labor intensive so far. "We're still in a testing phase, controlling our introduction into the market," says Moore. "When we come on-line, the market will be ready, but the challenge is, how much will the market want? It'll all be addressed in a season or two. The trees grow fast and we're just on the first step of development. But we have some real advantages with sustainability, inventory on the stump, adaptability and selection of clones." 

Barbara Coyner has covered forestry issues and the timber industry for various magazines and newspapers for over 15 years.

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