How an eco-logger views his work

  • Bob Love, shown here with Murphy, cuts inferior trees

    Tara Tuchscherer photo

Not many loggers have a degree in creative writing. Fewer serve on the board of a state wilderness association or argue philosophy with timber giants like Plum Creek in northwest Montana. Bob Love does.

He's been called the "eco-logger" by some, the "Una-Logger" by others, and these days he runs a one-man selective logging business. For almost two decades, however, Love cut trees for industry, using everything from helicopters to cable logging. Finally, he says, he got into trouble by asking too many questions: "I was more concerned with what was left behind."

Nearly 20 years of cutting Montana's largest and most valuable trees had taken its toll. "To me (those trees) were real. I had their blood all over me, feeding my children. These were 300-, 400-year-old trees capable of killing me, that I was cutting down."

Since going independent in 1994, he's been able to approach logging as more than an economic enterprise. Land is a sacred thing, he says, and wildness is the original source. He likes to quote Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist philosopher:

If you are a poet you will see clearly there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud there will be no rain; without rain the trees cannot grow; and without trees we cannot make paper. If we look even more deeply, we can see the sunshine, the logger who cut the tree, the wheat that became his bread, and the logger's father and mother. Without all of these things, the sheet of paper cannot exist.

But where some conservationists would like to silence all saws, Love wants to see "10 times as many" in the woods. He envisions small operations with people working on the land rather than looking out at a forest from the windows of a machine.

Love calls it "wild forestry." When he reads a patch of forest, he's looking not at what to take but what he should leave. In a cluster of fir, he seeks the tree that is dominant: the tallest, the largest in diameter; the one with the fullest crown, the healthiest limb system, no pitchy wounds; the one that seems to be beating its neighbors in the race for sunlight, water and nutrients. This tree might bring the best price, but it is not the one he takes; it is one he leaves.

Walking through a stand he thinned a few years ago, Love singles out a 60-foot lodgepole pine which he says is good, merchantable timber. The owner of the plot wanted him to cut and sell it. Love was convinced that the tree would enhance the health of the stand. So he offered to buy it rather than cut it. "What are we talking, maybe $45?" In the end, the owner was convinced; the tree stayed, and Love didn't pay.

"I've trained myself to see connections that are invisible," Love says. He tells of lynx that hide their kittens in thickets of seemingly useless lodgepole pine, gophers that act like "little rototillers' working the soil, and thistles whose deep roots bring nutrients up to disturbed ground. His decisions in a stand depend on these and other related factors. It is multiple use redefined.

The result can be attractive as well as ecologically sound. Showing a stand he had just logged to an anti-logging activist, the observer's first question was, "When are you going to start here?"

Love's approach is not no-tech, however. He uses four gallons of diesel fuel per day to run a small John Deere bulldozer along with his chainsaw and brush chipper. "I'm as fossil-fuel dependent as anyone," he admits.

Why don't more loggers practice this kind of forestry? "I'm slow and I'm expensive," Love says. "I take the time to do what's best for the forest. Most loggers focus on getting logs to the mill as fast as possible. It comes down to quality versus quantity, long-term value versus the quick buck." While most loggers are paid based on the volume of logs they remove, Love often charges his clients by the hour. "This removes the incentive to devalue and encourages forest retention," he explains.

Rem Kohrt, a forester for a Flathead Valley, Mont., area mill, compares Love's handcrafted style to a spinning wheel: The effect may be satisfying and aesthetically pleasing, but who in this day and age is going to hand-spin all the fibers for the clothes they wear?

Bud Moore, now retired from the Forest Service and a mentor for Love, thinks there is a place for Love's approach on public forests. "People don't want to see our wild public forests managed the same as corporate tree farms," Moore says. "The focus needs to be on the forest - all the pieces of the forest - not just the trees."

'Asta Bowen teaches and writes in northwest Montana. Steve Thompson contributed to this report.

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