Modern loggers look out for forests’ health

Posted: October 17, 2012

Source: Tucson Citizen

Sustainable logging in MontanaVERNON – In the dark, while the sun is still hours to the east, trucks carrying WB Contracting crews rumble up a forest road to a rutted clearing. The headlights catch glints of metal, then reveal a row of machines in theshadows.

The men run their checks: Top off diesel tanks. Lubricate moving parts. Clear errant branches and chunks of bark from the previous day. Calibrate measuring equipment. All systems go.

This is the land of loggers. The men, and occasionally, women, of the White Mountains cut down trees, stack them, grind them, ship them off to sawmills.

But for these loggers, the land is the domain of their machines.

Here, the modern-day logger does not tote a chain saw. There are no spiked boots for climbing trees. If there is an ax or a hatchet in a toolbox, it collects sawdust. And these loggers use computers to measure trees.

Logging the woods has changed at a level at least as deep as the roots of the ponderosas that crash to the forest floor all day.

When the sun rises, the WB Contracting crews will not look for the biggest, oldest, most valuable trees as their grandfathers and great-grandfathers did. They will look for the trees most detrimental to the health of the forest, the ones that crowd out the sunshine, suck up the water and feed the wildfires. They will look for the ones marked for thinning — the ones under 16 inches in diameter, usually — using an approach to forestry as distinct from the past as the technology.

Then they will thunder forward atop diesel-powered jaws and claws to take those trees away. And with each falling timber, they will be loggers. A new kind of logger, but loggers nonetheless.

“You still have to have sawdust in your blood, but we love our forests and we don’t want them to burn,” said Dwayne Walker, one of the brothers who started WB Contracting 27 years ago. “We’re doing what’s right for the forests. We know why the people on the mountain are here.”

High-tech changes

In the cab of the three-wheeled cutter, perched about 6 feet off the ground in a machine the size of a bulldozer, Trey Walker pivots a quarter circle on the grassy forest floor, aiming for a cluster of ponderosas. On the front of the cutter, a heavy blade spins, and as it makes contact with the tree, it whines loudly. Wood chips explode. Just as the tree teeters, Walker uses the cutter’s mechanical arms to grab the trunk.

Walker moves to the next tree and repeats the process, then spins again and drops both trees onto a nearby stack. The stack grows quickly to a dozen or more pines, work completed in 10 minutes that, with chain saws or crosscut saws, could have chewed up most of the afternoon.

At 21, Trey is one of the youngest members of the Walker family working for WB Contracting. The bright red cutter he operates represents the sort of advances in machine logging that allows the Walkers to accomplish the same job with 32 workers that once required more than 100.

Those numbers also tell a story of an industry transformed by technology and a new view of forests.

Timber once drove the economies of Arizona’s high country, reaching from the White Mountains into Flagstaff. Sawmills dotted the landscape, more than two dozen at the peak, mostly family owned, and loggers moved through the ponderosas with enough work to support the communities that grew amid the pines.

“In my generation, we saw one of the big booms here,” said Dale Walker, one of the brothers who helped start WB. “If there was timber, there was a sawmill. It all added up.”

Then a federal judge all but shut down the industry with a ruling in 1995 that halted new timber sales while the government devised a recovery plan for the imperiled Mexican spotted owl, which made its home in the pines.

“My earliest memory as a child was going with my grandpa to his sawmill,” said David Tenney, a Navajo County supervisor whose family cut trees and operated a sawmill and lumber yard in Heber. “It was what we did, who we were. After the lawsuits, we couldn’t hang on anymore. You saw a thriving industry in our region die, and a lot of jobs died with it.”

Timber harvests in Arizona plummeted from about 300 million board-feet a year in 1990 to 28 million in 1996, according to a study by the Rocky Mountain Research Station, a unit of the U.S. Forest Service. The numbers have risen in recent years, but the total harvest in 2007 was still just 15 percent of the peak during the 1980s. The number of sawmills decreased from 23 in 1966 to eight in 2007.

As fallout from the lawsuits cleared, some work remained for loggers, but without the old, large-diameter trees to sell, business crashed.

Then in 2002 another event remade the landscape — and the job of logging the woods — yet again. That time, it was the devastating Rodeo-Chediski Fire.

In need of thinning

On this day, WB crews work their way through a stand of trees designated on a U.S. Forest Service project map as “Antelope.” The site sits above Vernon, over high ridges from Pinetop-Lakeside and east of Show Low.

The job is part of the White Mountain Stewardship Project, one of the largest single sources of work for loggers in the Arizona high country. The project was born in the years following the Rodeo-Chediski Fire as land managers, environmental groups and loggers concluded that the forests were unhealthy, overgrown and in need of thinning.

“Most of the timber now is pre-selected by the government,” Dale Walker says. “They tell us what they want to keep … we cut down the rest.”

Rust-colored paint marks the trees the Forest Service wants left behind, usually those larger than 16 inches in diameter. A pair of cutters, also known as feller-bunchers, take aim at the rest. The cutter driven by Trey Walker moves quickly, almost nimbly through the trees, the blade slicing through the bark and wood. Walker keeps the cutter balanced, not an easy task when the tips of the pine trees gyrate 80 feet above his cab.

The second cutter moves more slowly, on tracks, better suited to hills and steeper terrain. Both slice into the tree trunks with a burst of chips, filling the air with the smell of pine wood and a touch of diesel. The machines are easy to find, trackable by the constant whir of the blades. Even from a distance, they can be found by the sight of the shuddering pine tops in the forest.

Once the trunks are stacked, the crew separates trees depending on their size and how straight they are. The longer and straighter they are, the better lumber they will produce. Other trees are marked for chipping, bound for a mill in Show Low that produces wood pellets and mulch.

At a site where the cutters have finished and the trees have been sorted, several larger machines form a sort of assembly line. Skidders, which resemble modified backhoes with claws, drag the stacked trees to a loader. At times, the loader just moves trees along the line, into a steel box, where blades inside remove branches and bark. At other times, an attachment on the end of the long arm can measure and de-limb a tree with a menacing set of rounded silver gears that might look at home in a sci-fi movie.

On this day, the trees move through a chipper, which spits the wood into a semitruck bound for the mill. Off to the side, a pile of brush grows as the branches are stripped off. Later, a grinder will chew up the brush, producing fuel for a power plant in Snowflake that generates electricity with biomass, the leftovers from thinning and salvage work.

The site pulsates with the growl of so many engines, the whine of blades. The de-barker and shredder belch smoke, the clouds thicker and darker when larger trees are fed through. After a semi full of chips pulls away, the din recedes a little, but never is there silence.

For all the machines, there are still those unpredictable elements. The threat of summer thunderstorms drives the early start, an attempt to outrace the late-day clouds. “A day or two more rain like that and we’ll be shut down for a week,” Dwayne Walker says.

And there is still family, coming and going, sometimes just to visit.

On a recent day, Cole Estes climbs down from the loader to greet his wife and newborn baby daughter, Dale Walker’s granddaughter.

“That’s the fifth generation there I guess,” Dale Walker says.

When the next semi pulls up, Cole climbs back on the loader and his young family heads back to the pickup.

Reshaped the industry

Dale and Dwayne Walker’s great-grandfather worked as a farmer and sharecropper in east Texas, and when the growing season ended, he would take an ax out and make railroad ties. A great-grandfather on their mother’s side owned a sawmill.

“It’s in the blood,” Dale said, “the sawdust.”

“Four generations ago, they didn’t have vehicles at all,” Dwayne Walker said. “They barely had steam sawmills. They used horses to haul the trees, axes to de-limb them. You had to be tough and ornery to work out here. Nowdays, we use kids who played TV video games. They have that hand-eye coordination that’s so good.”

But it’s not just the work that has changed, the axes and crosscut saws replaced by wheeled cutters, the horses and steam engines sidelined by precision machines. The model has changed too, the business itself.

The lawsuits in the 1990s ended logging as Arizonans knew it. The shutdown lasted long enough to drive mills out of business, leaving the loggers no dependable market for what trees they could harvest. People began to question the environmental costs of cutting down old-growth trees.

The Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which charred nearly half a million acres of forest in 2002, reframed the debate and reshaped the industry.

“In some ways, it’s like night and day, this business,” said Dwayne Walker. “It’s definitely an evolution.”

The goal is to reduce the risk of monster wildfires like the Rodeo-Chediski or 2011′s Wallow Fire. The infernos feed on dense stands of trees, growing hotter until they spread up to the crowns of trees and race across the forest as a blaze firefighters struggle to douse. In a thinned forest, fire stays low in the groundcover, licking the bark of older, taller trees but never reaching the canopy.

WB, the largest of about eight logging outfits above the Mogollon Rim, won the big contract on the stewardship project and has overseen, in eight years, mechanical thinning of about 90,000 acres, more than 100,000 semitruck loads of timber and wood chips.

Thinning means removing smaller-diameter trees and leaving the bigger, older trees that foresters say are critical to a ponderosa pine ecosystem. Not every logger is happy about that. Some have convinced elected officials that the industry could be reborn if the rules were changed again and widespread logging allowed.

David Tenney, the Navajo County supervisor whose family business declined with others, has begun working with the thinning advocates. In 2010, he began lobbying for the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, which will expand thinning efforts across three other national forests over the next 20 years.

“It’s only obvious what’s going to happen when forests are growing millions of board-feet a year without taking anything out,” Tenney said. “It wasn’t a healthy forest. It became very obvious to me we’ve got to do something.”

The thinning projects come with time frames, mostly to satisfy contracts and government rules, but once the work starts, it can’t stop. Forests regrow quickly. Areas thinned once will require maintenance work, especially around mountain communities, where residents are wary of controlled burns, the other method of thinning the growth.

And so as long as the forests grow and the communities grow, the loggers will have work, trees to cut down, logs to cut and trim.

The years since Rodeo-Chediski delivered another epiphany for high-country loggers, something they say shows the way the forest and their business have changed.

In 2011, another monster fire spread through the mountains — the Wallow Fire, the largest in Arizona history.

This time, fewer homes burned.

“Nutrioso, Eagar, Alpine would have been toast if we hadn’t thinned the trees over there,” Dwayne Walker said.

Even so, the land of loggers has changed, forever.

“It still burned a lot,” he said. “We lost a lot of the nicest forests in Arizona. Not even my grandkids will see what I’ve seen.”