By Bill Henderson, Renewable
The North Cascadia Sentinal
The first thing you see from the
plane flying into Cedar Creek are the dirigibles. The antique Twentieth Century name
doesn't quite fit the saucer-shapes at the top of NORPAC LOGGINGS two and a half
mile state-of-the-art skyline yarding system. As you get closer you can see the log
bundles floating to the sea along the spider web array of mainlines and haulbacks
descending from the dryland sort. The space age impression remains alien and incongruous
to practical down to earth resource extraction. The sheer dimensions and advanced material
science seem silently divorced from the deep green forest below. The signature orange
coloured high performance plastic SPINELON cables seem more at home tethering modules in
space; here they are removing green-gold wealth in time-honoured fashion for mills
downstream and homes in the future. Here at Cedar Creek this web helps hold together last
remnants of Pacific Northwest rain forest as part of Breakneck Beauty No. 14, the longest
skyline in the northern hemisphere.
The dirigibles, the SPINELON cables, the massive machines at the bottom, at the dump in
the calm waters of Hesquit Channel, the complex logistic and communications system and, of
course, the present generation of loggers that make this space age system work, are all
part of an increasingly successful experiment at removing timber without destroying
irreplaceable forests. Its future forestry today courtesy of Breakneck Barrows and
When the plane lands to get off at the dock of the floating camp, its reassuring to
see and smell the logs in the water, hear the machinery working, and see the boomboats and
the men in their lifejackets. Log rafts and bags awaiting self-dumping barges stretch up
along the channels north shore. You can see the logs coming in on the three
mainlines like chairs on a ski-lift until the radio signal releases the choker and they
fall to the water rocking the floats.
Later, when weve taken the gondola up the sidehill with the second shift and
wandered on the floor of magnificent cathedral old growth, it is eerily quiet and
transcendent. Away up above the arching canopy the orange cables and the occasional load
could sometimes be seen, but the impression of serene timelessness and awe was
undiminished. Enough timber to keep a valuable and unique way of life possible.
Rob (Breakneck) Barrows is a quiet engineer-logger from Medford Oregon. The Breakneck
Beauty super skyline is his invention. There are now twenty-four Breakneck Beautys
logging on four continents; another ten are under construction. Breakneck Industries
specializes in turnkey ecocentric logging and Rob Barrows is a quietly busy man.
Rob grew up in the woods. His dad was a stump-to-dump contractor in Oregon and Washington.
Rob got his nickname driving truck for his dad during the summers when he was going to
college. One day his brakes failed (luckily it was close to the dump and not on a
switchback) and he careened right through camp before executing an emergency landing just
short of the water. The nickname stuck (perhaps because hes deliberate and
methodical - the very opposite of impulsive or wild).
After getting his B. ENG, Rob worked with his dad before forming his own company ,
contract logging for ALFOR in the old Tongas National Forest. In the 1990s after
several decades of traditional logging, Rob began thinking about other logging techniques,
especially adapting old skyline technology.
|"Ecosystem management technology will probably emerge as more important to
people than either the technology of the communications revolution or biotechnology
because of its potential usefulness in guaranteeing a livable environment."John C. Gordon (former Dean of
Forestry, now Pinchot Professor at Yale)
"All plans and activities must protect, maintain and restore (where necessary) a
fully functioning forest ecosystem at all temporal and spacial scales." Herb Hammond (Silva Forest Foundation)
"I saw the writing on the wall. Sustained yield, clearcuts and extensive
road-building were no longer acceptable. In Oregon and Washington grapple and small tower
shows were getting to be a thing of the past. I read the literature and came to the
conclusion that logging in the future required a yarding system that was easily redeployed
and could access whole watersheds."
For awhile it was just an interesting abstract problem and then came the Ecosystems
Protection Act of 1999.
"Most people associate the 1999 Act with hydro dams and power grids and the
phenomenal development of photovoltaics but what it meant in the woods was that
traditional logging was dead and only methods that left ecosystems intact over the
long-term would be allowed. Suddenly I was out of business if I couldnt find a new
way to log."
He bid on the first ecocentric contracts in the Tongas and frantically
began adapting existing skyline technology, innovating extensions, interfacing with
helicopters, trying to make selection cutting practical.
"I went broke on those contracts but so did everyone else and I kept my crew working
and a foot in the door. ALFOR badly needed wood and they bankrolled me. The ideas Id
been playing around with helped, but in the end it came down to building the Beauty,
leapfrogging with new technology."
Two years and five million dollars later he had solved the myriad interlocking problems
and he was logging profitably in the Tongas. Demand for his invention skyrocketed, and
Breakneck Industries was born. He still painfully remembers going to the bank with his dad
in the 1970s for a just under a hundred thousand dollar loan for a second hand
grappleyarder and says that if he had known the time and stress involved in building the
first Beauty, he would have walked away and done something else.
For most forest industry insiders Robs adaptation of Kevlar-clone high performance
plastic cables was his big break-through. Five times the tensile strength of steel,
durable, and infinitely more user friendly, SPINELON cables and chokers were the sinews
that allowed the longer, practical, portable reach Rob was looking for. Reworking
fastening mechanisms and friction coatings was his special adaptive genius but he says his
engineering background helped him out with the cables. Rob thinks the logistics planning
and communications innovations (for which he shares two patents with his electronics
partner Bill Fitch, an old friend from college who had gone into imaging electronics) were
the key innovations.
"The problems involved in developing the Beauty were all intertwined, but the key was
the interface between the woods and the machine. The Forest Service had developed a random
selection process involving topology, statistics, some game theory and, of course,
ecology, so that partial retention group selection was possible without highgrading.
Visualizing and planning location and developing a yarding strategy over the long time
frames of repeated passes over a whole watershed were more difficult than I first thought.
And organizing my men away up on the hillside, under the forest canopy, required constant
computer feedback communications. Our imaging, planning and communications system makes
the whole thing work. Now our on-site harvesting staff have keyboard and voice access to
the plan in the computer at the base camp. We know where everybody is for safety and
In the two days we spent with Rob at Cedar Creek the safety and efficiency aspects of
Breakneck skyline logging were quietly underlined. Everybody has a radio and access. The
ongoing level of maintenance and order was impressive. The safety record is exemplary for
a resource industry. The effect of recent political problems in Okhotsk on lumber markets
has sweetened the pot but NORPAC has logged profitably at Cedar Creek since day one. Cost
per cubic metre continues to decline year by year.
We flew out with Rob. He was bound for home and family and then Chile. As we flew up over
the hillside I remarked about the beauty of the place and he smiled. He could retire to
his equally beautiful Molokai sunsets, but he chooses to stay involved. His two sons are
successful outside of logging. He has been repeatedly approached to stand for South
Coastal Cascadia Director but he has so far declined. We talked about the heat building up
from haulback friction and then he spent most of the trip home happily lost deep in
(An edited version of this trade journal sci-fi was published in
The Business Logger.)