In a corner of his airy shop near Silver City, N.M., Gordon West is working out the kinks in Southwestern forestry. In a small way, of course: Everything he does is intended to work in a small way.
West, a middle-aged logger, woodworker and builder, is testing a long metal machine that resembles an overgrown lathe. Its working space is occupied by a 4-foot-long, 5-inch-diameter pine log. Crooked and welted with knots, it looks better suited to stoking a campfire than supporting a roof.
But to West, this log represents the future. His new machine, built to West’s specifications by a local machinist, has an integrated bandsaw, drill and laser sight. It will allow West to take small and irregular ponderosa pine logs — culled from the nearby Gila National Forest during thinning operations — and trim and drill them so that they can be connected together and used interchangeably in building houses. It is part of his crusade to make the economics and technology of modern construction conform to the ecological realities of Southwestern forests.
"With this equipment," says West, "you can turn these logs into trusses that you can use as precisely as milled logs, even though they’re all random and bent."
West is fair-haired and wears owlish glasses, and he grins a lot — especially when he contemplates his new equipment. "I’m going to have a lot of fun with this," he says. "Ah, new toys."
West’s one-man company, Santa Clara Woodworks, develops innovative uses for small-diameter logs — something many in the Southwest have attempted, but with little success. He is also working on a new product called Chipcrete, which will turn wood chips into durable bricks that can be used like cinder blocks. And he’s turning a wide-tired Mercedes truck chassis into a new yarder that will haul small logs from the woods with minimal impact on soils and plants. He funds these various projects with grants and the earnings from his products.
West also serves on the board of directors of the nonprofit Gila WoodNet, a handful of loggers and environmentalists who aim to both thin the forest and help the local economy. At least 10,000 acres of publicly owned ponderosa forest need to be thinned near Silver City, according to an assessment by the Forest Service and Gila WoodNet, because more than a century of fire suppression has allowed the growth of dense, fire-prone thickets of spindly trees. But the annual pace of the thinning has been deliberately slow — 500 acres each year — because West and his allies want to ensure that the work in the forest can last.
Gila WoodNet is a vertically integrated business. It sends people into the woods to cut trees, following restoration plans agreed to by its members and the Forest Service. Then, it works to turn the wood into marketable products. "Big industry isn’t where it’s at," West says. "I’d like to see dispersed small industries. The more dispersed an industry is, the more stable it is, and the less likely to crash."
Shaping a healthier forest, and a healthier local economy, is West’s first goal. "Making money comes second — though it does come," he says. "But you don’t care so much about making a lot of money if you’re already doing what you want to do."