The Finnish hew saw at Duane Vaagen’s mill can make two two-by-fours from a tree no thicker than a loaf of bread. “The magic,” he says, as logs rattle by and emerge seconds later as finished lumber, “is being able to turn such small diameters into a high-quality, finished product.”

Vaagen’s Usk facility is what’s known as a “small log” mill, making lumber from trees anywhere from four to 16 inches in diameter. For decades, lumber companies logged the biggest trees on the landscape. But most of those are gone, and much of what remains is on protected public lands. So companies like Vaagen Brothers have tried to adapt to a new business model, logging under the rubric of “forest health” or “restoration.” By thinning small trees and leaving big ones intact, the Forest Service hopes to make forest more resilient to fire.

“We’ve kind of taken a page out of the environmental movement’s playbook,” Vaagen says. “They say they don’t want to log but they’re ok to thin, so we’re not really a logging company. We’re a thinning company.”

Whether thinning makes sense for the environment is still hotly debated: some scientists say it harms wildlife and can even encourage wildfire. But lumber companies in much of the inland West would be hard-pressed without it. Mills in Wyoming and Colorado depend heavily on contracts to remove beetle-infested timber for public land.

Duane Vaagen gets a third of his timber on national forest, and he says there’s still enough infrastructure nearby to make small trees economical. Leaves and branches produce electricity at a biomass plant; damaged logs go to a pulp mill for paper. Vaagen says the problem is that even with millions of acres of forest nearby, it’s hard to maintain a continuous supply of timber. “This mill should not be starved for logs… the trucks should be lining up, all the way to the grocery store.”

From Northwest Public Radio: