Paul Decker sorts though some tangled wiring while standing in front of a pile of debris at the Pacific Rim Institute for Environmental Stewardship outside Coupeville Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. Decker, a woodworker, has volunteered his time at the institute to lead a salvaging project to reduce debris and repurpose wood and other materials he finds. Photo by Ron Newberry

Woodworker turns piles into possibilities

The voles that take up residence in the debris piles around the Pacific Rim Institute for Environmental Stewardship aren’t crazy about Robert Pelant’s latest project.

The rabbits aren’t too pleased with it, either.

Critters have been scattering ever since Pelant orchestrated a salvaging effort aimed at reducing dozens of debris piles full of old wood, metal wire and other materials left behind from the days when the property was a state game farm tasked with raising pheasants.

Pelant, Pacific Rim’s chief executive officer, admits that the institute near Coupeville probably created an even bigger problem when it removed 11 miles of fencing and started consolidated materials years ago only to watch the piles sit and become swallowed by tall grasses and blackberry bushes.

Facing one mountain of a potential landfill bill, Pelant led efforts to reduce the heaping twisted-and-tangled piles, but the herculean work by volunteers, neighbors and staff only made a dent.

Just when Pelant was about to give up on searching for a creative solution, a neighbor with time on his hands, crafty woodworking skills and a keen eye for recognizing value and potential entered the picture.

For the past few months, Paul Decker has volunteered his services to lead a salvaging operation that is turning piles of junk into a heap of possibilities.

Decker dug through the piles and recognized the potential for some of the hundreds of old cedar posts, tight-grain boards and other discarded items that could be saved and re-purposed to help keep alive some of the history of the old game farm.

He has worked with Pacific Rim staff members Bret Sheldon and Seth Campbell to tackle the seemingly impossible task of pulling out materials from the mounds, sorting the items and executing a beautification project that had started and stopped on previous occasions over the years.

The result is expected to have both economic and environmental benefits for the institute and community, Pelant said.

“These guys are taking stuff that was absolutely destined for the dump,” Pelant said. “I think we’re going to save upwards of 20 tons.

“These guys look at things differently. We see junk. They say, ‘I could do this or that.’”

The proof is already on display in the hallway outside of the Pacific Rim office.

Decker, who retired from the Navy in 2014, built an easel using an old fence post and steel pipe recovered from the piles.

There’s also an attractive sofa table made from rough-sawn two-by-fours that were discarded, a small wooden chalkboard he crafted, and a long cedar fence post that was hand split and sanded for use as rustic wall decor. He kept a piece of wire and nails attached to it for a nice touch.

“I’ve always liked rustic furniture and salvaging, just the idea of re-using and re-purposing something to give it a second life,” Decker said.

The owner of an antique business known as the Rustic Ram, Decker struck a deal with Pelant.

He would work out of the wood shop on the property for his own business part-time while also volunteering his services to build pieces that could benefit the Pacific Rim Institute as raffle prizes at auctions or other fundraisers.

When he demonstrated what he could do with pieces of wood taken from one pile, Pelant’s eyes widened.

The combination of re-purposing a good portion of recovered wood while also dramatically reducing landfill and excavation costs seemed like a project worthy of investing staff time, which brought Sheldon and Campbell into the fold.

A salvaging operation was started, tackling the tangled mounds of fence posts, metal pieces, chicken wire, nylon flight netting and other pieces one pile at a time.

“This is murderous stuff to get out,” Pelant said.

There have been past efforts, but not to the magnitude and potential of what’s been taking place since the fall.

And none with such hope and promise with a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel.

“The first time I went out and started pulling, I was like ‘This is never going away,’” Sheldon said.

Heavy machinery has been used to turn the piles, exposing metal wire and netting to cut, snip and and yank.

There were more than 20 massive piles to start with, several taller than 10 feet.

Decker and the others have sorted, reduced and organized them into smaller mounds with specific designations.

One is for scrap metal that can be recycled, one for wood and other materials that can be stored and re-used for art and furniture, one for compostable wood pieces and the last for unsalvageable material destined for the landfill.

Some of the wood shavings could go for animal bedding, while other wood pieces have gone to community members to burn for heat.

The work is ongoing, but significant progress is being made while also preserving memories from an old game farm that was around for half a century where pheasants once numbered in the tens of thousands.

“This is the stuff that was laying out there for 70 years in the weather,” Pelant said.

In the shop, Decker has turned recovered wood into a beautiful rustic table and bench.

“There’s character and history behind it,” Decker said.

“The lady who ordered this table is very excited about the history. She wants to know more about where the table came from.”

When he retired from the Navy after a career as a structural mechanic, he started working with wood in the garage of his home not far from Pacific Rim.

He saw potential in the piles and shared his vision with Pelant, which turned into a collaboration that is mutually beneficial.

Decker sees it as a way to pay for his hobby while also being a good neighbor.

“I feel like I’m going to work every day again,” he said. “After two years of retirement, you start to go a little stir crazy.”

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