Horselogging Follies – Dance ’til you Drop
by Anthony Arnold of Riondel, BC
If you have ever had a few good days in the woods with your team – those days when you and the horses are right on top of the work, in great physical shape, and the wood piles up on your landing – then you may have thought, “this would be a great way to make a living. I should get a contract on a big chunk of timber.” After all, the opportunities abound: often private landowners want only horses to work in their woods, for reasons both philosophical and practical; forest companies will sometimes look for competent horseloggers to work in niche areas, as much for the public relations value as for silvicultural reasons; governments offer public timber sales with horselogging only restrictions; and I have detailed elsewhere (see SFJ Summer ‘94) how well a portable mill and a team of horses can work together.
In any of these scenarios, contractual arrangements range from a few spoken words and a handshake to elaborate legal documents, complete with a host of stipulations and a healthy bid deposit. Such was the timber sale license I recently bought from the British Columbia Forest Service. While “disastrous” might be a too potent word for the exercise that followed, my final grade in Contracting 101 was nevertheless a big fat D-. This surprised me. I have plenty of experience using horses in the woods, and the ground conditions on my timber sale were among the best. The wood seemed okay. The log market was firm and rising. At 4,200 pounds my team was ready to go, experienced, able to do the job. But good horselogging skills did not translate into good contracting skills. Here are some areas where I made mistakes.
By horselogging standards this was a big sale, 2,400 cubic meters, about 80 truck loads or 2,000 tons, so there was a large amount of wood to look at on the nine hectare plot. All of the reserve trees were marked with a ring of blue paint, and the value per cubic meter for what was left varied from fifty to one hundred and thirty-five dollars, depending on size and species. To assess that amount of wood accurately a person needs time, experience and some technical skills. Even on a small plot, a systematic count might vary significantly from a first casual approximation. My case was complicated by the official timber sale cruise analysis provided by the timber owner, in this case the government, which because of its complex and technical methodology I took to be reasonably accurate, despite a hunch to the contrary. You might take a landowner’s word that “there’s at least 150 big cedars out there.” We would both be guilty of the same mistake. Timber estimates vary widely. I should have made certain the wood was really out there because the excessive amount of low-value, small wood, and the complete absence of white pine worth thousands of dollars almost ruined me.
For my next mistake I found no scapegoat. Although most of the ground offered favorable (downhill) skidding, a few areas of adverse (uphill) or long distance skids (1,500 feet plus) involved a tremendous amount of time and muscle. The wood recovered from these areas was not good enough to justify the work. The preponderance of easy ground lulled me into ignoring the real challenges of the hard ground. On your sale everything might look good except that one trail or the loading area or a certain heavily stocked gully. Assess the true cost of each factor and don’t ignore the negative issues just because they are few.
On small sales I usually work by myself, but with eighty loads to move in a timely fashion I needed help. I followed the basic rules, looked for people with whom I could communicate, practiced fairness and hoped for the same in return. But I overestimated labour’s advantage. In the beginning I spent far too much time and energy training people, losing production myself; later I realized that the best help is the most professional help, albeit the most expensive. Paying help a piece rate, so many dollars per cubic meter, is the standard approach in forestry work; day or hourly rates are sometimes necessary when circumstances warrant. My mistake here was two-fold: day rates used up all I was making in a low-productivity area, and then after I broke my leg the final piece of easy ground went to a subcontractor at a piece rate very much to his advantage. The partnership I tried was a bit too informal; unenlightened self-interest can spoil a good working relationship. Remember, nobody else has the same obligation to the job as you do. Tough going might send help scattering.
ARE YOU UP TO IT?
I knew this was a big whack of hard work. Early in the process I began to chant this mantra: One tree at a time. That is how I kept from letting the size of the task distract me from the work at hand, especially after I began to experience the physical limitations to my own productivity. In addition, running the job used up time and energy that could have gone into production. I failed to calculate the time that would be spent in meetings with forestry, selling logs, planning, directing people, making decisions. I spent days training people. (People who quit.) Even without these distractions my production was usually lower than I had expected. Age was a factor – at 55 I’m still biting off work like a 35 year old. Calculate the work load carefully when you take on a job because a commitment to an unrealistic schedule will grind you down. If you are hoping that it will all work out, it probably will not.
SORTING & DECKING
Not by coincidence do the two most successful horseloggers I know own small caterpillar tractors. I have never seen either one of them pick up a peavy. Decking by hand may justify that extra piece of pie at the end of lunch – if you have the energy left to eat it – but it will not make you any money. Even though my landings were all downhill from where the trails ended, levering logs onto the decks with a bar and peavy used up time and energy that could have been spent falling and skidding. Meanwhile, the horses rested. Incidentally, small logs are harder to deck than large logs because they do not roll as well or as evenly. There are devices and techniques which can minimize the amount of effort this process takes, but nothing beats a machine for saving time. As for sorting, every job is different, depending on the mix of logs, but all jobs run up against the reality that sorting logs takes a lot of space. If the slope profile is not favorable, sorting logs according to their various markets can be difficult with horses.
Our forests in the southern interior of British Columbia are diverse. If a logger has to sell everything “bush run” to one destination, he does not see a premium on high-end logs. There are log sort operations which will sort and sell wood appropriately, but their fee, up to twelve dollars per cubic meter, makes it unprofitable to ship low-end wood to them.
My successful friends also use their machines to build trails and do post-logging clean-up. Their operations are more versatile and they can bid on timber sales that would require me to hire equipment. Under ideal circumstances a horselogger can manage without a machine, which comes, after all, with expenses as well as advantages, but he will undoubtedly work harder. In the absence of consistently good ground and high-value wood, only the Paul Bunyans among us will manage to keep working without help from a machine.
THE GOVERNMENT BUREAUCRACY
This mistake was most specific to my situation. Read on if you are considering a contract with government. Any government. Up to this point my experience had been exclusively with private wood. While landowners might have a few opinions about how the work is done and some favorite trees that want protection, they will usually stay out of the way while you practice your craft. Not so the parade of bureaucrats and technicians that put together and administer a timber sale license. I was watched, monitored, harassed, billed, and shut down; I encountered all kinds of fallout from the pyrotechnics of intra-office political warfare as they struggled among themselves; and I had to pay, pay, pay – deposits, fines, stumpage, stumpage arrears, interest, road use fees, the list stretched on. If there is a post-logging waste assessment clause in your contract, for example, count on some eager technical beaver to show up with calculator in hand to search for wasted wood. If there is a silvicultural prescription, follow it, because they pay people to impose consequences if you do not. All those details in this contract which I had never encountered in private logging affected my productivity and my attitude. I should not have ignored them just because they seemed minor. In this respect I was profoundly naive when I assumed the system was rational. And ultimately it is the system which is crazy, not the hapless bureaucrats.
THE UNKNOWN FACTOR
Luck helps. You can fail at contract logging due to market forces totally beyond your control. Few buyers will guarantee a price for more than two months, but costs are fixed and bound to rise over the course of a long sale. The world log market is driven at breakneck speed by an immense fleet of electronically controlled mechanical forest harvesting machinery built with space age technology that piles up logs so fast you would swear it was done with mirrors. That is your competition on the open market. If you end up at odds with the market, you will not be the first. Narrow margins disappear fast.
Despite these six problem areas, I managed to keep sane and solvent. Credit goes to my wife who bore with my trials and kept our home functioning; to some fair-minded mill owners; and to the honest and willing people who worked for me. I did some things right, too:
I kept my debt load to the absolute minimum, bought disability insurance, and paid my bills before I paid myself. This encouraged me to find satisfaction beyond financial reward in work that paid less than half what I had projected. Attitude makes such an impact on the course and quality of any day, so I determined to enjoy myself and improve both my own and my team’s abilities, taking that as a premium on top of my pitiful daily wage. One tree at a time.
Fuel and rolling stock represent one of the significant costs of contract logging. I know horse logging is supposed to be the opposite of hydrocarbon based logging, but if you are doing a lot of contract work away from home or need a machine for decking logs, your operation can tally up a big fuel bill. This sale, only 10 km from home, cost me little in fuel. I retired my horse truck. In fact, my favorite work days, the ones that always fed my soul, were travel days. What an exquisite way to grab hold of life – me and Tom and W. R. Titan jogging our carefree way up the forest service road to the accompaniment of sunshine and birdsong, or snow falling and the vast silence.
Most horseloggers are familiar with these. The best one I have used is the walking beam tandem-wheeled unit, and this is a must have piece of equipment for the serious full-time horselogger. The adverse skidding on my sale went smoothly because of the arch cart. They work best with big timber, because hitching multiple logs is fussy unless they have been pre-bunched. On parts of my sale this went well. My partner assembled loads with his smaller team and then my horses could take four or five pieces at once down (hopefully) the trail to the landing. Using a cart certainly gives a break to the teamster, who rides on the device, but by the same token his horses work harder. Not only are they pulling more wood on average per skid with the use of the cart, but they are dragging an extra six to seven hundred pounds around all day, up the trails as well as down. They are also frequently asked to back the thing up.
The other machine a horselogger must have available is a self-loading log truck. My trucker – I hired the best – assembled loads from a number of different piles and sorted my wood in the process. Although his payload was a little less than a conventional truck, he could offer a variety of services that saved money. On the north end of my sale the land configuration worked to advantage and the trucker kept at least six sorts active. I sold the south end bush run, and eliminated the need for sorting. Each stand is unique, and the self-loading truck gives the most options when it comes to handling the wood.
I saved the easiest wood for the end. That proved to be a good strategy, especially after I broke my leg and had to contract out the last fifteen loads. Still, what a great incentive to know that in the last weeks you have nothing but cream. I also took the time to build a shelter and manger for my horses which saved feed and helped their attitude. They were the ultimate talisman by which I avoided disaster. Lately I have come to see a certain perversity in hitching logs to horses. At the appropriate scale, in the proper setting, the three of us make a sort of biological engine, fueled by grass and groceries, that is efficient and practical. The ideal, in my opinion, requires that the logger have some kind of tenure on the land, either in the form of ownership or a multi-year contract. This fosters the practice of good silviculture, because any benefit which accrues to the forest accrues also to the logger. After all, the forest is more than a storehouse of vertical logs waiting to be harvested, which is industry’s standard point of view. Tenure gives a measure of independence from market forces as sales can be timed to take advantage of better prices. Multiple entries into a stand become feasible in this context, in contrast to a short term contract with a deadline. Tending a woodlot has the potential to become a gaining cycle – instead of liquidating a forest in order to earn a living, it can be made to thrive and produce.
Consider the horses. Logging presents big challenges to a team. Several times a day they may have to put out near-maximum effort to move a big log. Slash and stumps encumber their footing. Steep terrain brings on fatigue. Usually they are working away from home and familiar surroundings with minimal shelter. If you push them too hard they will lose condition or get hurt. A hardhearted and knowledgeable teamster can drive them like slaves until they are nothing but meat. Using horses to maintain and improve a piece of forest at a pace somehow consistent with the rhythms of life makes sense to me, but dragging them from jobsite to jobsite like some cheap biological tractor seems crude and exploitive. This would be the true measure of failure: to lame a horse, wound his spirit, or spoil the eye’s bright, eager light in the quest for profit. How could any reward justify such ignorance?