Slim margins

Loggers say forest restoration work doesn’t put much food on the table

  • The Melcher Logging Co. uses mechanical loggers to thin forest 10 times faster than could be done by hand, working in winter to minimize damage to the land. Most companies won't even bother harvesting thin trees like those shown (top). Robbie Melcher (middle), a third-generation logger, tightens the rigging between a log truck and a trailer loaded with logs. The Melchers use a single grip harvester (bottom) to cut a tree, strip its limbs, cut it to length and stack it neatly, all in 30 seconds or less.

    DEAN GUERNSEY
 

 Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "The War on Wildfire."

SISTERS, Oregon — From the cab of his Timberjack harvester, logger Scott Melcher eyes a clump of skinny ponderosa. He scans the trees, calculating which will grow fastest if he leaves it standing, which might be stunted, which will pay its way out of this forest on the east side of the Cascades.

Melcher makes his selection, pushes a button on a control panel, and moves the grapple into a steel embrace with a 12-inch-diameter pine. A retractable saw blade slices through the tree near its base. Working a joystick and more buttons with remarkable grace, he rotates the tree horizontally and pushes it through a series of blades that strip the limbs and bark. Then, he lays the pulp log gently on a pile and moves on to the next tree in the stand.

With a chainsaw, Melcher could thin an acre of these woods in a day. Using the harvester machine, he can accomplish 10 times as much. Sixty percent of the logs he decks — those between 5 and 16 inches in diameter — are destined for a sawmill 70 miles away, where they’ll bring $300 per 1,000 board-feet. Those smaller than 5 inches will bring just $25 a ton when chipped at the mill.

If Melcher is lucky, he will make a modest profit on this job. More likely, he says, he’ll break even after paying for fuel and labor. Still, the project keeps a crew of six employed in winter, when things are slow for loggers over on the west side of the Cascades.

As old-growth timber sales dwindle on the Northwest’s public land, and as the Forest Service turns its focus toward "forest health" projects, logging contractors such as Melcher increasingly look to small trees and thinning sales. The question is: Do they pencil out?

 

A new formula

Melcher, a third-generation logger, has been doing fuel-reduction projects for four years. This particular one is for the Deschutes Land Trust, which buys up area timberland and invests in its long-term restoration. Melcher, his brother, Robbie, and their business partner, Jim Cota, also work on the Deschutes National Forest; his company did most of the thinning and brush removal completed last winter for the Metolius Basin demonstration project.

The Melcher Logging Co. produces about 40 million board-feet a year — enough to keep 33 employees busy, plus the independent truck drivers who haul their logs to the mill. So far, thinning provides just 15 percent of that. But things may change: The Deschutes National Forest is preparing to thin another 12,000 acres in the Metolius Basin, and a project outside the basin will treat 32,000 acres.

To make thinning sales of low-value trees work economically, the Forest Service can’t put them out to bid in the usual way and expect the timber’s value to draw bidders (HCN, 1/17/00: Experiment takes the cut out of logging). Instead, the agency uses "stewardship contracts," which pay logging contractors by the acre to take some trees out and leave others behind. The Forest Service had experimented with such contracts before, but the Healthy Forests Restoration Act gave it permanent stewardship-contracting authority.

"They know we aren’t going to get much value (from the logs), so they pay for the services we provide — thinning and biomass removal and hand-piling of limbs," says Melcher. On the Metolius, the Forest Service paid him $150 to $400 per acre, depending on the wood removed. "If there’s more value coming off the land," he explains, "we charge less for the service."

One way to increase the value would be to find a use for the large quantities of limbs, branches and needles that litter the ground after thinning. Right now, most of the slash sits in tall piles until it dries and the weather is cool and moist enough to burn it safely. But this woody biomass can also be burned to generate power.

Can biomass pay?

Biomass electric generation has obvious environmental benefits: less air pollution, less damage to watersheds, less risk that slash burns will get out of control. But the economics are daunting. Transportation costs make biomass more expensive than other energy sources, and very few power plants currently employ it.

In conjunction with the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, Congress has authorized the Forest Service to spend $5 million annually between 2004 and 2008 on grants to help communities and small businesses use biomass. The agency has awarded a number of grants in Oregon, including one to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which plans to expand generation at its sawmill to eventually produce 15 megawatts of electricity.

Much of that biomass could come from fuel-reduction programs on the nearby Deschutes. Melcher wants to be a supplier — if he can figure out how to make it pay. The cost of cutting and transporting stacks of skinny trees is far higher than that of larger trees, he says. Chipping them on site with portable chippers is a possibility, but most chip vans can’t navigate steep, twisting forest roads.

And even if biomass becomes economical, there could be a downside, according to a May 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office. Mass harvest of the skinniest trees could lead to overuse of mechanical treatment at the expense of prescribed burning, and it could increase erosion, stream sedimentation and access into remote roadless areas. And environmentalists wonder: Does it make sense to use gobs of gasoline to get biomass out of the woods?

Meanwhile, Melcher says a little more flexibility in thinning contracts would go a long way. "What eats on me is, when I cut through these stands, I cut a lot of future," he says. "If I take out little 12-inch trees, I’m cutting vibrant young trees." And logging a few of the bigger pines, he says, can make the difference between profit and loss: "If we can take a few 16-inch trees, it helps pay for the operation. Maybe we can take enough volume out of this one stand to pay for the thinning in another stand."

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -