By Michael Howell
While one of the worst blizzards in decades rolled into the Bitterroot and most people hunkered down next to a warm fire, Shawn Stoker was out logging. Logging on frozen, snow covered ground is one way to lessen the impacts of the operation on the land. It means less scarification of the land and less compaction of the soil. Add to that a computerized machine that can de-limb and cut the tree to a specified length while holding it in mid-air and you are talking about really low impact logging. And a minimal impact operation is just what the owners of the land were looking for in this case.
The sixty-acre tract of land, located up the Tin Cup Creek drainage west of Darby, is owned by Stewart Brandborg, a longtime conservationist. A conservation easement was placed on the land to preserve it in its forested state.
“It was a pretty strict easement,” said Brandborg, “to the extent of no harvest and no logging.”
So why are they in there logging now, you might ask. To preserve the forest would be the short answer.
The thickly wooded area was falling victim to the latest infestation of mountain pine beetle that has wreaked havoc across western Montana and the Bitterroot. Like other infested areas of the forest it was becoming a tinder box, ready to burn. Fire did lay a hot hand on the property 11 years ago. The fire started near Lake Como and burned across the ridge, dropping onto the property and scorching about two acres. It was a wake up call.
The Brandborgs went to the Montana Land Reliance, the company that holds the easement on the property, and worked out a solution that was satisfactory to all concerned. It would allow some light-on-the-land forest thinning to take out the bug killed trees. A prescription was designed by John Wells, a professional forester, that would make for a healthier stand of trees and lessen the fire hazard while preserving the values which the conservation easement was designed to maintain. It was not designed for profit.
“The land trust that holds our easement was generous in their decision to let us do this harvesting for the health of the forest,” said Stewart Brandborg. “They gave us the benefit due to all the bug killed trees.”
Shawn Stoker, of High Mountain Logging of Corvallis, said that over half of the volume removed from the land was dead standing. Much of the rest was small unmerchantable Douglas fir.
Two small landing areas were cleared where the down trees were hauled to be de-limbed, cut to length and sorted. There was a pile that would go to a small sawmill in Corvallis, a couple of other piles of #1 and #2 house logs, a pile to go to Porterbilt for posts and rails, a pile for Pyramid Lumber, a pile of firewood, and a pile of slash that could be chipped or burned on the spot when the job was done. Stoker said that keeping the destination of the product as close to the logging site as possible was the key to making the small operation profitable. Long hauls quickly eat up the profit in transportation costs.
The other thing that makes the light-on-the-land approach possible is the $480,000 machine that Stoker bought used for $150,000. Of course, parts for the rig are expensive. Two bolts that hold the saw bar onto the machine, for instance, cost $150 each. Replacing or repairing parts can be extremely costly. But this machine is what makes the whole thing possible.
“It makes everything work,” said Stoker. “The boom reaches out 55 feet and makes everything happen without damage to the ground because everything is done in the air.” He said the huge rubber tired skidder also reduces impact on the land by suspending the load as it hauls it to the landing.
Stoker is also proud of the results. The thick, overgrown forest is being opened up a bit, but it will not look at all like the land that you pass through to get to it. That land was the subject of a commercial tree thinning operation that left very widely spaced, even aged trees, creating a very open, park-like setting, looking more like a tree farm than a forest.
On Brandborg’s place the forest, with all its diversity, is still intact.
“The big thing we try to do is to see what we want it to look like in the long term,” said Stoker. “Then, like Michelangelo and the rock, we take out everything that doesn’t look like that picture.”
All the big yellow pines and the big fir trees were left. In fact, almost all the larger living trees on the place were left untouched. Lots of dead snags were also left for the benefit of wildlife. Big patches of thick growth were also left scattered through the area as refuge and bedding spots for big game and other animals.
“What I like is that you can see a lot of individual trees now,” said Stoker. He pointed to one large 400-year-old pine and said that close to 50 small Douglas fir trees from 15 to 30 feet tall were removed from around the base of the big pine. It not only gets more air and light, it might even survive a fire now that the “fire ladder” surrounding it has been removed.
Stoker said that the woods were so thick on this piece of land that it was hard to see anything.
“We also opened up some views,” said Stoker. “Now you can see some of those big yellow pines on the cliff and see the cliffs themselves. Before, the canopy was so thick that you couldn’t see anything from down here. I think it’s cool seeing the ice coming off the cliff like that. It’s beautiful.”
Stewart Brandborg remains an ardent conservationist. But he also believes that local loggers can still be put to work doing sound management for the health and well-being of the forest, and, with the right machinery, at the right time, and with the right amount of care, they can do it without destroying the landscape.