Watch videos of a feller/buncher and a delimber in action

Prospect, Ore.

We stood there for minutes, transfixed by the giant dancing before us.

Just 50 yards away, a lumbering, house-sized, one-clawed contraption called a delimber was grabbing logs up to two feet across and 60 feet long and swinging them as if they were balsa wood. A sawblade beneath the delimber's claw sliced off one end of the log, and then in one smooth motion the log trundled through the claw's O-ring, losing its limbs along the way, before the other end was cut and the claw placed the log neatly onto one of several piles.

Rarely does one come across such a combination of grace, size and power. And to think we found it here, on a steep and muddy mountainside, 4,000 rain-soaked feet up southwestern Oregon's Siskiyou range.

For nearly three decades, Ken Wienke has tromped through Oregon woods like these, first as a surveyor and now as an organizer of the timber-cutting jobs that feed Boise Cascade's mills. This rainy May morning finds this second-generation woodsman outside the tiny Rogue River valley town of Prospect, checking the progress of a job that's typical for him but may not jibe with an outsider's mental image of logging.

If your last mental picture of lumbermen dates from the early 1900s, you might expect to see scores of men wielding axes and saws on giant redwoods. If you've caught up a bit by watching TV series like The History Channel's "Ax Men," you might imagine a dozen or so guys lopping branches off trees and attaching cables to logs so they can be hauled up a hill. But on this 81-acre site, contractor Doug Plumley brought out just four people: one to run the feller/buncher, a fearsome machine on tractor treads that latches onto a tree, cuts it in one fell swoop and then deposits it in a pile; the previously described delimber; a tractor unit with an arm that loads the logs onto a truck; and Plumley himself to watch the progress. At most, fewer than a dozen people are ever on site.

You might also think that the fellers would aim first for the biggest trees, the fabled giants 10 feet across and skyscraper high. But they aren't here; most of those trees are protected today, which means that most of the wood felled out West is between 45 and 90 years old. Even if the big old growth woods were available the lumber companies wouldn't necessarily treasure them. Their mills prefer trees smaller than 24 inches in diameter and frequently want them closer to just 6 inches across.

Checking up on contractors like Plumley lies toward the end of Wienke's work process. He spends much of his time figuring out where and how to get the timber needed for Boise's engineered wood products. It's not always an easy process, even when you drive a three-quarter-ton pickup. On the road to the Prospect site, Wienke points to a steep area on the north fork of the Rogue River. "We helicopter-logged that," he says casually.

Even when you don't need a helicopter, logging on the West Coast today is a complicated proposition. Wienke says the first thing he does when inspecting a potential site is to locate where the owls live; that's a reference to concerns over spotted owl habitats that have pretty much shut down major logging in the Northwest since the 1980s. He also has to pay attention to avoiding cutting in areas that could affect streams or other endangered wildlife. (Western state's timber management rules often are as strict, sometimes tougher, than the Forest Stewardship Council's green guidelines.) But while Wienke strongly believes in protecting the environment-his other car is a Prius-he draws the line at ideas like banning clear-cutting. He also doesn't mind poisoning trees Boise doesn't need, like the hardwood madrona. He wants to make certain those unwanted trees don't keep growing and thus steal light and water away from the pines and firs that he plans one day to come back, cut down and take to the mill.

–Craig Webb