Russ Steele: Seeking neighborhood-friendly ways to build wealth from timber |

Russ Steele: Seeking neighborhood-friendly ways to build wealth from timber

In the late 1940s and 1950s, logging was one of the mainstays of the local economy. Nevada County had multiple small saw mills and each of the mills had a burner for turning the sawdust and slabs to ash. This produced a smoky haze throughout the community.

For those who grew up here, the smoke was just part of living in a lumber town. But, with the influx of retired and semi-retired people in the 1950s from the larger cities on the coast, who had a desire to take advantage of the ideal living conditions in Nevada County, a conflict developed between the locals who were dependent on the lumbering economy and the new arrivals.

The challenge was how to leverage the community’s location next to the forest, while creating income from the forest. This was a challenge that interested Charles Litton Sr. when he arrived in Nevada County in 1953.

Litton was concerned about the smoke, wasted energy and the need for a profitable forest industry. Seeing an ad by Monsanto Chemical Company for furniture molded from granulated wood, he wrote asking for information on the general economics and benefits of creating molded furniture from waste wood products, thinking it might work in Nevada County.

In his letter to Monsanto, Litton summed up the situation in November, 1954.

“The lumber industry is very diffuse in this county,” Litton wrote. “Small mills, and lots of them, [have] made difficult any project for waste salvage. On the other hand, tremendous quantities of heat energy and wood chips and sawdust are consumed daily in the primitive waste burners that cover the landscape with dense smoke and as we have frequent inversions in this foothill county, the problem is very real.

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“Our job in solving this problem would be made easier, of course, if we could take all the energy (human that is) wasted in fighting between the interests and get it turned toward a solution. My hope is, that with the full knowledge of the economic use of these waste products and some sound engineering, we might devise a program which is good enough for everyone.

“With your plastics, the lumber man’s chips, and my own engineering services, and the community’s patience and blessing, there maybe a sensible answer.”

Now, 55 years later, the community is still trying to solve the problem of developing a sustainable forest industry in the county, while reducing the environmental impacts.

The smoke is gone, and environmental regulations stopped the burning of lumber slash and sawdust.

Yet, the challenge remains. We live on the edge of a vast renewable resource which is growing more and more dense, raising the danger of catastrophic fires.

There have been ongoing efforts to reduce the dense growth in our forests, starting with the FireSafe Council’s attempt to create a fire-prevention wood-use center. They studied the issue with a Bureau of Land Management grant in 2004.

They created a plan and found a location for the wood-use center on the old saw mill site near the intersection of Brunswick and Greenhorn roads.

The county granted the wood center a permit, and the future was looking up. Then, a neighbor’s lawsuit put the project on hold. The FireSafe Council then found 5 acres at the back of the McCourtney Road landfill. But, again, the “NIMBYs” (not-in-my-backyard) won the day, shutting down all wood grinding at the McCourtney site.

Now the Economic Resource Council is seeking to create yet another forest safety and resource wealth generation project. Under the volunteer leadership of Keith Logan they have formed the North Sierra Biomass Utilization Task Force to look into the options for Nevada County.

One of the first challenges will be the NIMBY issues of noise, truck traffic, and burner exhaust. Logan thinks they can “devise collaborative processes that can address the problems before they come up this time.”

However, the real challenge, according to Joanne Drummond, the FireSafe Council executive director, will be figuring out how to generate a reliable and continuous flow of material that can be chipped and burned in the power plant.

I was struck by the parallels between the challenges faced by Charles Litton in 1954, the current-day efforts of the FireSafe Council and the task force. How can we create wealth from the renewable forest, reduce fire danger and still be good neighbors?

Russ Steele is a freelance writer who blogs at NC Media Watch ( He is writing a book on economic development in Nevada County from 1950 to 2000. Charles Litton’s letter was provided Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

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