A machine with a funny name could provide a better way to thin Southern Oregon's crowded forests.

A machine with a funny name could provide a better way to thin Southern Oregon's crowded forests.

Jack LeRoy's "dangle head processor" has been working in the woods northeast of Prospect. The machine looks like a small tracked excavator, but instead of a digging bucket it carries specialized tools that swivel like a wrist at the end of a boom. It cuts a tree, scrapes off the limbs, and saws the log to precise lengths in about the time it takes to read this paragraph.

As the machine creeps through the trees, the cutting tools seem to flop around at the end of the boom, hence the "dangle head."

LeRoy, a Central Point logger, is using the sophisticated piece of equipment to remove small trees that have relatively little market value. The trees need to come out to give others room to grow and reduce the risk of fire, but removing them by hand would make the work too costly to pay for itself.

"To make (thinning) economically feasible it's got to be mechanized," LeRoy explained to a visitor at the logging site Tuesday. "But it still has to meet the environmental standards we have now."

The fancy crawler does that and more. LeRoy said it puts less pressure per square inch on the soil than a human foot, and it causes minimal soil disturbance because it uses the branches it strips from trees as a protective mat between its tracks and the forest floor.

"We're taking out the ponderosa pine and leaving the Douglas fir," said Jim Fiorelli, a supervisory forester in the High Cascades Ranger District of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. "Opening up the stand will allow the Douglas fir to grow, put on some cones and do some natural regeneration."

The crawler can cut and process trees up to about 15 inches in diameter at breast height. The largest logs can go to a mill to be sawn into dimensional lumber. Mid-sized trees become posts or poles, and the smallest sticks can be chipped or used for fuel.

Log-processing machines like LeRoy's have been around for some time, but loggers and foresters are still learning new ways to use them efficiently for forest health projects such as thinning, said Amy Wilson, coordinator for Southwest Oregon Resource Conservation and Development Council.

The nonprofit organization is subsidizing LeRoy's logging operation with funds from a $120,000 grant from the National Fire Plan, which was developed to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire on forestland. The grant money pays LeRoy for the time his machine operator spends working on the ground. Foresters will study the site and gather data about how the thinned stands fare to help other foresters and loggers expand their options for removing small trees.

"We want to gather some really good information about how these projects work," Wilson said.

She said funds from the grant also have been used on two other projects, one in the Peavine Mountain area, the other on Rum Creek in Josephine County.

Wilson said the eventual goal is to make thinning pay its own way, because there are thousands of acres of forestland that have too many trees. Mechanized equipment can help make the projects affordable by reducing labor costs, but the equipment itself is expensive: the dangle head processor costs about $400,000, and a "forwarder" that moves the logs to a landing for loading costs about as much as the processor.

Wilson said thinning is close to becoming self-sufficient, but loggers need to know there will be enough jobs to invest in the expensive equipment to do them.

"There's got to be enough work to keep the equipment around here," she said.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.