newskyline.jpg (19648 bytes)


Breakneck Beauty
By Bill Henderson, Renewable Resources Editor
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 LOGGING’S 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. It’s future forestry today courtesy of Breakneck Barrows and Breakneck Industries.

When the plane lands to get off at the dock of the floating camp, it’s 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 channel’s 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 we’ve 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 Beauty’s 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 he’s 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 1990’s 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 couldn’t 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 I’d 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 1970’s 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 Rob’s 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 efficiency."

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 thought.

(An edited version of this trade journal sci-fi was published in
The Business Logger.)

questions and comments



Green Thoughts


Sustained Yield