Gila WoodNet

Posted: May 1, 2006
Written by: 
David A. Fryxell

Santa Clara, New Mexico, near the Gila National Forest

Objective: To develop methods to remove and utilize small trees from forest restoration thinning, with the goal of restoring a more natural forest structure.

Participants: Santa Clara Woodworks, Center for Biological Diversity, US Forest Service (USFS)

Finances: As a nonprofit corporation, Gila WoodNet has received federal grants and funding from the Ford Foundation. The bulk of its funding comes from the sale of wood products.

History: There is widespread agreement that forests are overcrowded with small trees, a result of 100 years of management practices that removed larger trees while excluding most natural fire. But there's no economic incentive to log trees with trunks 12 inches in diameter or smaller at breast height, and current forest service thinning techniques can cost $1,000 per acre. By creating a market for trees that are beneath the notice of commercial logging, Gila WoodNet hopes to make it economically viable to do what, unchecked, nature would otherwise accomplish.

Gila WoodNet co-founder Gordon West had been working with wood, one way or another, since 1977. He moved to southern New Mexico from northern Idaho, where he'd operated a small woodworking business and was active with a local environmental group. He set up shop in Santa Clara, New Mexico, intending to concentrate on cabin building. But when he contacted the forest service about trying some of the ideas he'd come up with back in Idaho, officials said their hands were tied. They directed him to Todd Schulke of the Center for Biological Diversity in nearby Pinos Altos.

Engel has described what happened next as "a lucky coincidence of having the right people in the same place at the same time." The relationship shows that "people of different views can actually get something done on the ground," according to Engel, adding, "We agreed to leave professional egos at home."

Schulke says, "It's provided an opportunity for us to build agreement on how to manage forests and restoration while creating jobs and businesses at the same time. It's a convergence of ecological and social values that's unique in the Southwest, if not in all of the West."

"A lot of people think the issue is 'enviros' versus industry people," West adds. "There's actually very little of that. It's mostly more subtle issues relating to money."

From its inception, Gila WoodNet aimed to tackle the most difficult challenges in forest thinning—not the easy stuff. The first hurdle was to develop a "prescription" for forest thinning that was ecologically driven --"which trees do you mark, where do you cut," as West explains it. The solution, developed cooperatively with the Center for Biological Diversity and the USFS, was to try to make the Ponderosa pine forest look as it would, had natural fires been allowed, in the absence of grazing and logging: Not evenly spaced trees, but rather clusters of pines separated by open space. Ponderosa pines tend to have dramatic spikes in seeding success, with highly prolific years—leading to groups of equally old trees called "cohorts"—followed by many relatively fallow years. The oldest trees in this part of the Gila National Forest date from 500 years ago, but they've almost all fallen to logging. So the primary cohort of pines that the prescription sought to emphasize by thinning dates from 1918.

To test the prescription, West, Schulke, and USFS experts literally went into the woods and started marking trees—each indicating which he'd leave and which he'd cut. When they compared notes, the markings proved remarkably similar. "Though we were all from different backgrounds, we'd hit on something very natural," says West. "We all had the same sense of what fire would have done."

Next Gila WoodNet had to come up with equipment "tweaked" for this sort of work. Traditional logging equipment is expensive and huge. West wanted to develop equipment that could go in, cut small trees and get them out again to be loaded on a truck, all with minimum damage to the landscape—without leaving lasting tire tracks, for example. So he built the "unilogger." Doing it himself and cannibalizing other machines meant he saved 80 percent of the cost of buying a "log forwarder" from Scandinavia, where the best are built. It also meant that people in other communities could replicate his creation without "really serious skills."

West started with a Nikken NWD 3000 articulated 4 x 4 fitted with a Nokka 3966 crane, which can adjust to fit the logs' length. It pulls a trailer that exactly follows the unilogger's tracks, even if loaded down with 30-foot logs. A grapple attachment can be switched with a chain saw, which can be rotated to control the direction the tree falls to minimize collateral forest damage. Working like an inchworm, the gizmo crawls the length of the tree trunk, shearing branches off, cutting and measuring as it goes. Finally, the unilogger winches the logs out and onto the trailer.

Back in Santa Clara, the larger logs are peeled and then dried in passive-solar kilns. Using little more than black plastic and circulating air, the kilns easily achieve 85 to 90 degrees. On a 70-degree day outside, the air blowing into the kiln can be as hot as 180 degrees. A full load of green wood will dry to less than 10 percent moisture in about three weeks.

The operation is becoming increasingly automated and efficient, with a long conveyor for logs soon to come online. An operator will eyeball the logs on the line and sort them by quality as they pass; lesser-quality logs can then be diverted to a firewood processor or a wood chipper.

Gila WoodNet sells everything from vigas to firewood to chips directly to the public as well as to area companies. West's for-profit Santa Clara WoodWorks, which occupies an adjoining property, is Gila WoodNet's biggest customer, and continues to pioneer innovative uses for ever-smaller logs.

 Gila WoodNet's new log line
Photo by David Fryxell
Accomplishments: Gila WoodNet directly employs seven people, but the network of jobs created by it totals 30 to 40. It's attracted a cluster of independent contractors and craftspeople ranging from a blacksmith to operators of a Mexican-owned sawmill on the premises.

Gila WoodNet and the for-profit Santa Clara Woodworks have pushed the limit for usable logs to trees as small as five to seven inches in diameter—wood that timber companies would dismiss as "junk." Sticking with logs rather than milling into boards lets them use trees less than half the size that a sawmill would require.

Gila WoodNet's prescription for forest thinning has been adopted throughout the Southwest, supplanting the previous conventional wisdom. Ultimately, the operation plans to plateau at 300 to 400 thinned acres a year; with about 10,000 acres within 50 miles that qualify to be mechanically thinned, they figure the supply will last 20 to 30 years just for the initial thinning.

Schulke, whose Center for Biological Diversity has often been a flashpoint for bitter controversy, says this project has been different: "When you get people out in the woods and they take a look at what we've done—the grasses and other herbaceous plants starting to grow at ground level, the trees with room to grow—and then you tell them it's creating jobs at the same time, any controversy evaporates pretty quickly. It's not that we have all the answers—we're constantly fine-tuning and learning. But this does address a wide range of values and gets past the controversy for a change."

Challenges/constraints: Finding profitable uses for the wood chips and sawdust left over after processing the logs remains a challenge. A couple of years ago, a deal to heat the nearby Fort Bayard medical center with wood chips seemed likely to solve the problem. But that win-win solution, which would have involved converting a natural-gas boiler, got mired in government bureaucracy, and now the medical center itself plans a move to a different facility.

Then there's simply the question of making ends meet, given the limited market for products from small logs and Congress' tightening of USFS forest-restoration funding. Within a year, West expects to have data showing that the taxes paid by those with jobs directly and indirectly generated by Gila WoodNet, with economic multipliers, add up to more than the government's share of restoration costs.

For more information see:

Gila Woodnet's web site

Gila National Forest

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