Greenville logger transforms biomass into bundles of firewood

Plumas National Forest Supervisor Earl Ford leans against bundles of wood culled from biomass. It’s part of Greenville logger Randy Pew’s plan to build a new business with his son, Jared, while ridding the forest of biomass and providing a merchantable product. These bundles are prototypes for the actual half-cords that will be available for sale. Photo submitted
Debra Moore

  Greenville logger Randy Pew wants to remove biomass from the forest, build a profitable business and provide a valuable commodity.

  He shared his plan with the Quincy Library Group on April 25, and so impressed Supervisor Lori Simpson, who was in attendance, that she invited him to the Board of Supervisors’ May 7 meeting.

  “You’re a man of resilience,” Simpson told Pew during the supervisors’ meeting. “You’re not whining. It shows what kind of character you have.”

  Pew’s logging company faced bankruptcy after he went toe to toe with the Forest Service and lost.

  Pew claimed that the Forest Service overestimated the volume of merchantable timber in a timber sale following the 2007 Moonlight Fire, and the issue eventually wound up in court, where a federal judge ruled in favor of the Forest Service.

  “I don’t blame the Forest Service any longer,” Pew said and attributed what happened to “poor decisions.”

  As far as Pew is concerned what happened is in the past and he is focused on the future.

  “We have to devote ourselves to forest thinning,” Pew told the supervisors.

  But therein lies the problem. “Where do we put the biomass?” Pew asked.

  For a while the answer seemed to lie in cogeneration facilities that transformed the small trees, limbs and other wood debris into electricity. But the market for power generated through biomass faltered when it became more expensive than other sources.

  Several cogeneration facilities, including the plant in Loyalton, ceased operation, making it even more economically infeasible to haul biomass long distances.

  “Is there a way to use the material that’s out there?” Pew asked.

  For the past four months Pew has been working on that question and he thinks he has found the answer.

  What if the biomass could be turned into firewood, but not in the traditional manner?

  “It’s pretty simple,” Pew said of his new approach.

  Logs would be stripped of their limbs, cut into 8-foot lengths and bundled into half-cords. The bundled cords could be lifted into the back of a pickup truck with a standard grapple, driven to a home and put in place. The logs would then be sawed into rounds that wouldn’t require splitting.

  “It doesn’t actually have to be picked up until it’s put in the woodstove,” Pew said.

  The key to streamlining the process and making it economically feasible is what Pew calls the “delimbinator.”

  “It’s the only one west of the Mississippi,” he said, of the handmade tool that is in limited supply.

  During the Quincy Library Group meeting, Pew said that he would focus on removing biomass from near communities.

  “Instead of burning in the woods, it can burn in homes to provide heat,” Pew said.

  Pew’s concept drew the financial backing of QLG members George and Pat Terhune. They are also working closely with Pew and his son, Jared, to develop the project.

  “There are a number of reasons why Pat and I are backing this project,” George Terhune told the supervisors. “This is an opportunity that we locally can make a difference.”

  During the QLG meeting he ticked off a number of reasons for his involvement including the belief that it is highly adaptable for other areas and it could be done efficiently.

  “What appeals to me about this is that it’s low risk for high potential,” Terhune said.

  He added, “Randy got his enthusiasm back, which is a big plus for the community.”

  Terhune said that it also would take a “big bite out of the biomass problem.”

  Pew and Terhune estimate that 80 percent of a log deck could be tied into the half-cord bundles that the men have dubbed “Z-cords.”

  “We think it has huge potential,” Terhune said.

  Laurence Crabtree, deputy supervisor for the Plumas National Forest, said that he and Forest Supervisor Earl Ford were “really impressed with what we saw there. We appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit and see this as a piece of the solution.”

  Terhune sees it as an opportunity to accomplish something.

  During an interview, Terhune said that the Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Recovery Act was great on paper and proved concepts, but it didn’t accomplish what the group had envisioned.

  “This is a potential to get something done without all of the bureaucracy,” Terhune said.

  Pew and Terhune hope that the project will be fully operational in the next few weeks and that it will provide an opportunity for others as well.

  Pew said it wouldn’t be safe for people to drive up to a log deck to pick up their bundles so he would need delivery people and could see it evolving into a business for others.

  Pricing is still to be determined, but Pew estimates that full cords will sell for about $100 to $125 delivered, though ultimately he said he hopes to get it to less than $100 per cord. He said regular cords of softwood currently sell for $100 – $200.

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