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Mater: innovator.

The ideas and energy of this Oregonian are turning woods "wastes" into makers of money and jobs.

An old saying has it that one man's poison is another's meat. If you apply that philosophy to today's hard-pressed forest economy, you might well learn that what the traditional logger regards as woods waste is money in the bank to a new breed of technologist.

A front runner in this fresh concept of making something out of what many still see as nothing is Catherine M. Mater, vice president of Mater Engineering of Corvallis, Oregon. A dynamic public speaker, she was selected by the White House as a panelist at the historic April 1993 Forest Summit chaired by President Clinton in Portland, Oregon. At that summit, according to one Oregon newspaper, she "came the closest to offering real solutions for helping to resolve the Northwest's timber crisis." In January 1994, the environmentally supportive John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation selected Mater as one of five worldwide experts to evaluate global forest-management and resource-development opportunities.

Mater's unique skills in identifying new manufacturing and marketing opportunities for the forest-products industry have brought her speaking invitations and contracts in the past two years from 16 states, Massachusetts to California, as well as Japan, Germany, Canada, New Zealand, and the Philippines.

"I developed it the hard way - on my own," Mater says of the expertise that has earned her this international reputation. "Traditionally, the forest-products industry has been based on how to utilize an available species - how to manufacture it and how to sell it. I simply reversed the equation. I start with what the consumer wants, what kinds of facilities and equipment are needed to meet those wants, and then what forest product will fill that need." Or, to quote from her firm's brochure: ". . . devising new engineering technologies and marketing skills to profitably manufacture value-added and secondary wood products (author's italics)."

"Value added" simply means making a finished consumer product out of a log or rough board - and in the process creating jobs, a major consideration in West Coast towns devastated by logging cutbacks.

"Secondary wood products" covers a multitude of forest growth that has been traditionally trampled, thrown away, or burned - like the prolific shrub salal, and bark, a byproduct that mills long ago learned to use as a money-earner rather than waste. Mater not only has shown the industry ways to expand its use but also has elevated to resource status such despised weeds as stinging nettle, horsetail, and devil's club, as well as lichens, mosses, tree tops, and twigs. Just about anything you run across in a stroll through the woods, she's found a market for.

Forest engineering was nowhere in her career plans when Mater, as an Oregon State University student, contemplated her future. She received her bachelor's degree in political science, intending to continue on to law school. As a graduate student she did legal research in the wood-products industry, which led her to meet and marry Scott Mater, president of Mater Engineering, a wood-products technology firm founded by his parents a half century ago. And it also led her to switch careers, going on to earn a master's degree in civil engineering at OSU, then devoting her considerable talents and unbounded energy to promoting a whole new outlook on how to best use forest products.

Her first big break came three years ago when the Willamette National Forest in Oregon's Cascade Mountains, its timber output drastically slashed by the spotted-owl/old-growth controversy, asked Mater to conduct a study of what forest resources other than logs might be marketable.

"It reminded me of one of my favorite movies: Robert Redford in 'The Candidate'," she recalls. "Once he was elected, he wondered: 'It's a great job - now what do I do?'"

By the time Mater finished her study, she had identified 40 to 50 forest products that had market potential. Then she focused on four (salal, Oregon grape, huckleberry, sword fern) that, she figured, could generate $72 million in income.

Since then she has developed more millions of dollars in new markets for secondary forest products - an amazing range of once-scorned weeds and scrap - and demonstrated how to get more value, meaning more profit and more jobs, out of a steadily diminishing number of trees.

Though her leadership has generated new business and employment, it's still a minor segment of the nation's timber business as a whole, and she is the first to concede that the technology she is pioneering still has a long way to go to win full acceptance from the industry.

"The toleration for my theories is still very limited," she acknowledges. "Many people think they're way out in left field. But the interesting thing is that loggers - the guys who work out in the woods - are the ones who show the most interest in value-added wood processing, because they can see what's happening to the resource."

That resource, of course, is the old-growth forest that has been reduced to a fraction of its one-time abundance. She says timber executives, in contrast to loggers, tend to get glassy-eyed when she tries to convince them of the market potential for forest "waste."

One of her favorite examples of value-added wood processing is in Ashland, Oregon, famed for its annual Shakespeare Festival but also home to the world's largest maker of mouse-trap blanks, those little wood rectangles to which the metal gadgetry is attached. Jim Parsons decided to go into this business years ago when he observed sawmills throwing away trim ends from lumber production, and thought there ought to be some use for these perfectly good wood pieces. So he founded Parsons Products to make mouse-trap bases, then expanded when he found another market for the wood scrap as door louvers, and still another for dollhouse components. The firm now has 120 people on its payroll, and a fourth expansion is in the making as it looks into fashioning the "throwaway" wood into the platters that Japanese restaurants use to serve sushi.

Mater cites a native Philippines tree known as ipilipil that has traditionally been regarded as a nuisance, suitable only for firewood. Now it is being manufactured into a structural base for European door makers, creating much needed manufacturing jobs as well as giving the Philippines' economy added export income.

Last year Mater was called to New Zealand, where forests have been long plagued by gorse, a spiny, thickset shrub of the heather family that sucks nitrogen from the soil and smothers new forest growth. Mater's studies found the plant yields an extract used in pharmaceutical products, returning more income than did the forests' timber, mostly radiata pine.

Dave Newton is a Mater client who runs Westview Wood Products in Dallas, Oregon, a small firm that manufactures sunrooms and other custom-made wood products. He offers another explanation of value-added production.

"To put it simplistically, let's say a logger cuts a tree, and it then goes to a sawmill and is made into 2x4s," Newton explains. "Now you have created two jobs, the logger and the millworker, and maybe you get eight bucks for that 2x4 at the lumber yard. But now say that the 2x4, instead of going to the lumber yard, goes to a dry kiln to get the moisture out, then to another mill where it is laminated, then to us to be processed into a home-building product. That multiplies the job factor by four or five and the dollar value by 10. Now, that's value-added!"

It should be noted that "value-added" does not mean higher prices to the consumer; it means making new products from what was once considered waste, thereby lowering the price of the finished products compared to those made from costly raw timber.

One of the most controversial issues in the Pacific Northwest involves cutting down ancient forests to export raw logs to Japan. Mater has no qualms about banning such exports from publicly owned forests, but is less certain about barring exports from private lands.

But there's no question about that in the mind of another Mater client, Kent Sorenson, president of Dessen Homes, a four-year-old Vancouver, Washington, firm that has 29 employees and an expanding market - in Asia.

"Asians are enthusiastic about American-style homes, but no one there knows how to build them," he explains. So his firm does the building, and is now this country's largest exporter of prefabricated homes to the Far East. These are not the usual mobile homes one thinks of as prefabs; they come in a wide variety ranging from ranch style to two-story houses with gables and porches and all the other accoutrements of a contractor-built home. The firm puts all the elements together, then ships off a complete house in two container vans.

"Everything is precut, so no cutting is needed on the job site," Sorenson explains. "We send them a detailed plan, and it all goes together like an Erector set, in about four days." Obviously, the value added to that lumber means a lot more American jobs than simply shipping raw logs.

A new client on the Mater roster is Woodnet, a nonprofit corporation on Washington's Olympic Peninsula linking some 350 manufacturers into a marketing network that produces high-quality value-added wood products. WoodNet helps these small operators reduce costs by joint purchasing and shared professional services, sharing trade-show booth space, and marketing their products nationwide through a handsomely illustrated catalog produced by the corporation. Mater recently signed a contract to develop a wood-products manufacturing technology center for the group, which she considers a success story that proves her theories.

WoodNet's executive director, Gus Kostopulus, caught President Clinton's attention at the Forest Summit when he expounded on what his organization is doing to bring hope to an area where forest-product unemployment is soaring. "The more you do to a piece of wood before you sell it, the more jobs it creates," Kostopulus told the President, echoing a prime tenet of Mater's creed.

WoodNet's members range from companies employing as many as 50 people to solo operators like Phyllis Kendall of Port Angeles, Washington, who provides another example of how "waste" forest products can be turned into money in the bank. Four years ago her family of four was stricken with Lyme disease while on an East Coast vacation. Then her husband lost his job with the local newspaper.

"I was so stressed out that I started making wreaths just to keep my mind off our troubles," she says. Using stuff from her own wooded property - twigs, huckleberry, salal, ocean spray, and the like - she studied up on the art of wreath-making and was soon selling them at street fairs. Now it's a full-time career that includes conducting classes in the art. One catalog listing alone brings her $10,000 a year. She and her teen-age son turn out wreaths as fast as they can work, but the business has boomed to the point where she says she will have to hire help.

Mater's accomplishments in the industry have not gone unnoticed. In her home state of Oregon, she was appointed by the governor in 1989 to develop a market strategy to expand value-added wood-product manufacturing there, and two years later the governor named her head of a statewide transition team to help timber-dependent communities.

In a seemingly unrelated appointment, she also is president of the Oregon Foundation for Medical Excellence and a member of the State Board of Medical Examiners. But Mater sees a direct relationship between the medical field and forest products.

Forest botanicals have a direct application to medical research in the real world," she asserts. Root bark of the thorny devil's club, for example, is being developed as a substitute for insulin in the treatment of diabetes. And valerian, another abundant forest plant, is used as a sedative, like valium. Mater sees a growing market for such secondary forest products, especially in the fast-growing homeopathic mode of treatment for patients, which puts more emphasis on natural medicinal and pharmaceutical substances than on chemicals.

Other despised forest weeds have market uses too. Stinging nettle may raise a rash on the hiker unlucky enough to brush against it, but one beauty-product manufacturer alone uses 50 tons a year of the stuff to make hair conditioner. For years "brush pickers" have been selling salal as fresh greens for floral arrangements, but Mater discovered that by putting salal in a glycerin solution, the shrub doesn't have to be sold fresh and can be preserved indefinitely - which, she says, raises its market value by 300 percent.

"The challenge is to find a business opportunity for people who want it," she says. "You have to go to the forest and see what's there, study the quality, and decide on the marketability. For example, we found that the oil of balsam fir differs a great deal in quality depending on the elevation at which it grows. One grade of oil will be acceptable to the fragrance industry; another will not.

"Demand for these products exceeds the supply," she adds. "The business is there, but the sophistication to deal with it is still evolving. Developing the markets is like raising a child to become a responsible adult."

Mater acknowledges that value-added wood processing is not the total solution to the raging battle over the logging of old-growth forests, but she insists that it's at least a part. And in many areas of the world, people taking home good paychecks from newly created jobs or who manage companies that are hard put to keep up with the demand for new wood products will agree with her.

EARL CLARK is a frequent contributor from Port Angeles, Washington.
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Title Annotation:Mater Engineering vice president Catherine Mater
Author:Clark, Earl
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1995
Previous Article:Bog breath: sleeper factor in global warming?
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