...while 'Rambo Cat' obliterates them

  • Alan Vandiver with "Rambo Cat"

    Greg Hanscom
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

The Forest Service's Alan Vandiver is boss of some 800 miles of roads in the Hebgen Lake District in Montana, just outside Yellowstone National Park. That's a lot of road, but it's 130 miles less than it used to be, thanks to a road-ripping bulldozer that Vandiver calls "Rambo Cat."

Vandiver started tearing out unneeded logging roads, some of which dated to the 19th century, to restore habitat for wildlife. His first tool was a standard asphalt ripper - a row of steel claws dragged like a giant rake behind a bulldozer. It tore up the road, but couldn't cut deeply enough into the soil to do much good.

Vandiver took his dilemma to Doug Edgerton, a former logger and machinist in West Yellowstone, who was designing grooming equipment for the local cross-country ski trails. Always up for a challenge, Edgerton went to work on a set of winged rippers - elongated claws with horizontal blades at their tips that would lift the soil from underneath.

"Doug showed up at my house one morning and said 'Come here, I've got something to show you,' " recalls Vandiver. "I was just like a kid that had gotten a present for Christmas." The winged rippers worked better than expected. "It was like blowing air into the soil," says Vandiver.

Before long, Edgerton had his 20,000-pound, 70 hp John Deere 450D fitted with all the gadgets necessary to lay waste to the widest of forest roads. The next addition was a retractable brush rake, a row of metal teeth affixed to the bulldozer's front blade, that scatters logs and slash across the roadway. Edgerton then acquired a more maneuverable six-way blade up front, making the operation faster and more efficient. The last addition to "Rambo Cat" was a backhoe, good for pushing streams back to their former channels.

When Edgerton is finished with a road, it looks like the area has been lifted from beneath by a giant gopher, then rained on by duff, logs and an occasional green tree. He says his challenge is twofold: first, to aerate the soil and provide enough shade for saplings to gain a foothold; second, to keep people out. You have to make it "extremely obnoxious" for anyone to get through, he says, or the road will be back before you know it.

"I believe in habitat; I believe in less roads," says Edgerton. "People have a right to ride motorcycles and four-wheelers. The real question is where's an appropriate place."