Logging industry has a history of turning problems into opportunities

The Van Norman family's self-built wood grinder didn't surprise Vince Randall, forest manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Glendale Resource Area.

After nearly two decades of working with Bud Van Norman, and later with Bud's son, Kory, Randall is accustomed to their innovative approach.

"It's amazing what Bud can do when he sets his mind to something," Randall said. "He's always inventing things, trying to make things better. He loves the challenge."

He recalled having a breakfast meeting with the senior Van Norman some 15 years ago in Cave Junction to tell the logger that changes were necessary in his cable logging operation because of worsening fire conditions.

"He started sketching on his napkin, and designed another system right there," Randall said. "And when I came to work on Monday, he had it operating."

The carriage system Bud designed on the napkin is commonly used today, Randall added.

The idea for a wood grinder came up when the agency was considering doing some roadside clearing in the resource area and needed a machine to economically chew up the leftover debris, he said.

"I was thinking about what kind of processor we would need for the tops and limbs," he said. "We were both trying to figure out a way to make it work. The next thing I know Bud is inventing the chipper.

"I was very pleased with it," he added. "We saw a lot of promise in it. And there was a lot of interest from private timber firms and mills. But the chip market fell apart. Without a processing facility nearby, it doesn't pay for him to chip material right now."

The BLM has yet to move forward with its roadside clearing project in the resource area.

Turning problems into opportunities has been the long suit of the logging industry, a trait that is especially important now in lean economic times, said Dave Schott, executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association.

"Most of these guys are doing everything they can to minimize cost, trying to hang on until better times," said Schott, whose father began working in the region's timber industry more than 60 years ago.

"They are trying to position themselves to be here when things improve," he added.

Although the industry has experienced plenty of down times over the years, this is one of the worst, he said. Evidence of that can be seen in the disappearance of hundreds of sawmills that once dotted the region, he said.

"Right now, there are only two mills processing logs in Jackson County and one in Josephine County," he said, not counting small mobile sawmills. In Douglas County, there are perhaps a dozen traditional sawmills still operating, he said.

"There is some work coming up — thinning, brush abatement — but not much," he said. "Things will change, but it will take time."

Meanwhile, loggers like the Van Normans will continue to adapt to endure the economic hard times, Schott said.

"It's called survival," he said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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