Restorative Forestry from the Ground Up
Restorative Forestry from the Ground Up

Restorative Forestry from the Ground Up

by Donald L. Gibbon
photos by Kristi Gilman-Miller

Harvesting timber can be the worst or the best thing ever to happen to a forest: The worst thing for an old-growth forest… or the best thing for a second-growth woodlot that has been mis-managed for a hundred years or more.

Driving south on Virginia Route 17 into Fauquier County it dawns on you slowly that this entire countryside is as well tended as a European park. Not a board out of place in the endless white fences, hardly a blade of grass unmowed, “more stately mansions” set well back from the highway, tucked into hollows or near the crests of low hills. In the background are the scattered higher foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, largely covered with mature second- or third-growth forests. This area has the highest density per capita of conservation easements in the United States, almost a guarantee that these landowners have a long term view of their relationship to the land.

There’s clear wisdom, then, in Jason Rutledge’s decision to set up the Northern Virginia office of the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation right here, among people who both care about their land and have the means to care for it well. Jason’s game is modern horselogging, which implies a whole eco-philosophy. This isn’t theoretical or arm-chair stuff. It’s “boots-on-the-ground,” to borrow a happy phrase from the Pentagon. Jason applies horselogging as a means to implement what he calls restorative forestry, also known as worst-first single tree selection. What is left in the forest after he’s finished is more important than what is taken. This is a radically different long term approach to the land, a complete departure from the all-too-common cut-and-run school.

Jason is a complex person, an earthy blend of NASCAR and Aldo Leopold. When we met last January atop Wild Cat Mountain, north of Warrenton, VA, he was just finishing the first day of felling trees on a new job. He burst into the small house loaned to him by the landowner as a logging camp, proclaiming loudly, “I LOVE TO SWEAT!” For sure, a day logging in the woods is no day at the beach. It’s hard physical labor. Jason, at age 55, gives no quarter in the division of labor with his colleagues half his age, horselogger Chad Vogel and apprentice Justin Lamountain. In fact, he works just as hard as they do and teaches all the time to boot. The three of them have spent the entire day on the new site felling trees and cutting them to length. The next day will be devoted to cutting skid trails along the contours of the land and preparing the log landing near the paved road. Finally they will bring in Jason’s and Chad’s horses to skid the logs out of the forest.

One of the wonders of horselogging is that it is so quiet. There’s barely a sound after the chainsaws whine down. The horses’ big hooves PLOP plopping along on the deep duff on the forest floor. The drivers’ commands to the horses barely audible, the clink and jingle of harnesses, but not much more. Bird songs are clearly audible: a Carolina wren trilling away, blue jays and crows in the distance, a few chickadees.

This particular day looks a mite ominous with predictions of wind gusts to 50 mph and falling temperatures. Jason, Chad and Justin, clad in bright orange hard hats, mesh visors, ear protection and Kevlar chaps, make short shrift of the old downed trees and underbrush that litter their chosen log landing site. Soon Jason and Chad have their teams deep in the forest, backing up to logs as much as 3 feet in diameter, attaching chains to the logs and moving off through the woods.

Horse logging is smart physics. The horses actually pull an “arch,” a rubber-tired sulky-like contraption that is rigged to actually lift the forward end of each log slightly off the ground. The teamsters, looking for all the world like Roman charioteers, stand high on the arch, leaning back against the seat for stability, bouncing through the forest. When the horses get it under way, the log rides on its rear end, front end raised, lessening the drag and damage to the ground. That rigging part is where the skill comes in. This is one man working alone with very heavy, very large logs. Lifting the butt end of one of those big babies is a real trick, but they handle it with deceptive ease. It appears to all be done with mirrors! And quickly, with no delay or obvious deliberation, important since they’re paid by the board foot, not by the hour. These woodsmen, according to Rutledge, are “loggers with a conscience,” caring for the entire system: trees, soil, understory, horses, and last but not least, a profit.

This conscience is also evident in their exquisite concern for the horses. For example, after a hard pull of only a few hundred feet, the team gets a several-minute rest, their sides heaving at first, slowly recovering their equilibrium. It may take four or five such stages to get from the felling site to the landing. And one of the last things to be done before bed time is always to see to the well-being of the horses, feeding, rubbing down and a final affectionate pat on the rump.

That day’s work ends when driving rain turns to snow, horizontal plumes of blowing leaves rush by, and big dead trees begin falling on their own, without benefit of chain saws. It is time to get out of the forest. After a good dinner of pot roast, potatoes and carrots from the crock pot, Jason settles in to watch bull-riding on TV. That’s the NASCAR part, willingly acknowledged in the bumper-sticker on Chad’s pick-up, “Redneck Treehuggers.”

Jason buys the individual trees from the landowner with the understanding that the tree selection is not made on the basis of greatest immediate income to either of them, but rather on the long term value of the stand. Jason counts on being able to come back in eight or ten years to find healthier, more valuable trees for a second cut. So this process is carried out with a mutual commitment to the land. The landowner is banking on Jason’s deep integrity, the Aldo Leopold part.

Early morning after the wind/snow storm we wake to no heat or power. Limbs and trees are down all over the county and along with them, the power lines. No matter here. Bacon, eggs, toast and coffee get cooked on the wood stove that heats the camp. In the midst of breakfast, Jason’s ever-present cell phone rings, bringing news from home down in southern Virginia that his stallion has kicked out the door of his stall and wandered a mile or so down the road before being rounded up and returned to the barn by Jagger, Jason’s adult son. This life is never simple, but Jason’s family makes his lifestyle possible by keeping the farm under control while he’s gone. Jason’s relationship with that cell phone betrays his deep Southern roots as much as does his accent. It’s not unusual for him to drop what’s he’s doing in the woods for a 10 minute chat with one or another of his hundreds of acquaintances, friends and relatives. He’s never far in spirit from the front porch and a couple of rocking chairs! And speaking of neighbors, Jason’s first instinct that morning was to get out and help clear the roads.

Restorative Forestry from the Ground Up

Restorative forestry entails much more than cutting trees and dragging them through the forest with horses. Perhaps most important is Jason’s program called “Biological Woodsmen.” I’ve thought a lot about that phrase, wondering if it could also have been “theo-logical” or “geo-logical” or all three. Jason is combing the countryside to find people whose hearts and minds and bodies are willing and capable of giving themselves to this very hard … and very rewarding… work.

More than twenty-five such people have already joined him. He’s developed and found funding for an apprenticeship program, bred and supplied horses for some of the apprentices, trained the novices in caring for the horses and in the elements of horselogging, and sent them out on their own as Biological Woodsmen, imbued with the commitment to the land and the forest that so deeply undergirds everything he does. He’s a hard taskmaster whose guiding principle is “Every time you make things easier you shave off a piece of character.” NOT an approach to life many people are going to put up with voluntarily!

Jason had been raised up on a farm in southwest Virginia, cared for by his grandmother and grandfather. He says of that time in his life, “My grandfather was an illiterate sharecropper who made a crop on farms that were being abandoned by others.” Jason lived with them until he was 15 years old when his grandmother “finally broke Poppa of his farming habit and drove him into town to work for Massey Ferguson.” Jason’s love of horses had been nurtured by seeing how his Poppa treated them. There was a “killer barn” in town, a slaughter house for horses, whose owner had always rescued and given Poppa the horses that showed by the wear marks on their necks that they’d worn collars, i.e., that they were working draft horses. Poppa had a half-acre vegetable garden within sight of the highway. He would harness up the old horses and have them stand in the garden in front of a plow… a sort of living bill board. Passers-by would stop, get in a conversation, and pretty soon those horses had found a new home.

England, 1970 – Jason is out on his Norton motorcycle, a service man on a weekend pass, when he suddenly sees a boy and a horse at the end of a long high-walled lane. It stops him dead in his tracks. He gets off the cycle and follows the boy through the gate into the farm yard for a closer look at the lovely Suffolk Punch mare – small, red, slick and shiny, fat and solid. Her smell makes him terribly homesick and he’s hooked. Now he breeds and sells them, raising several hundred of these small wonders of which there are only about 1000 in the world.

Ten years after that first encounter in England, out of the service and married, Jason buys a farm in western Virginia, paying $200 an acre for 22 acres. That farm and the home of his beloved horses has now grown to 85 acres.

Last October Jason put together a Biological Woodsmen’s Week near Warrenton, VA. Six Jason-certified horseloggers came with their teams from as far away as western New York and central Ohio to log a piece of privately-owned timberland as a five-day-long public demonstration of the practice of restorative forestry. At the end of the week, a seminar was held at the nearby Airlie Conference Center to answer questions from local folks who’d attended the demonstrations and to explain the essence of the practice. With Wendell Berry as the keynote speaker, Jason as the moderator, and horseloggers Troy Firth, from Spartansburg, PA and Gary Anderson, from Constantine, Kentucky, as panelists, the seminar was a rousing success. Over 100 people showed up.

Wendell Berry, of course, is the elder statesman who has for decades championed a principle-based relationship to the land. His book, “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture” (1977), is a profound examination of the impact of the then-nascent agri-business revolution that was in the process of destroying small farms and family farmers which had long been the foundation of our national rural life. Troy Firth is a timber manager who has as many as nine teams of Belgians in the forests of Western Pennsylvania. He’s deeply committed to restorative forestry. He owns a third-generation maple-sugaring operation which has been logged sustainably for over 100 years and a small timber mill to process his own and purchased hardwood logs. Gary Anderson went through the Biological Woodsman apprentice program over ten years ago and now runs the Forest School, Inc., on his own woodlot near Louisville, Kentucky. He champions growing food in the forest, by which he means particularly the naturally occurring mushrooms and other kinds of edible fungus which he asserts can outproduce the value of cutting the timber.

But even with that remarkable supporting cast, Jason himself was the star speaker of the evening. Jason has a well-practiced schtick which rolls off his tongue like a favorite sermon from a country preacher. If you’re inclined this way to begin with, you’ll be floating with enthusiasm by the time he gets through, a true-believer in the Eric Hoffer sense. But in addition to the deep-ecology message wrapped in forest green he’s got some very funny comparisons of the value of horses versus big machines in the forest:

  1. First, they are self-renewing. You will never come out and find a baby skidder in the woods in the morning!
  2. Then, horses operate by remote-control. You say soft words to them and they do what you tell them.
  3. Horses are self-repairing. For the most part, you turn them out to pasture and they get better.
  4. Horses are solar powered. They run on solar fuel in the form of hay and grain.
  5. The by-products of horses make the environment richer, not poorer. They produce fertilizer instead of carbon monoxide.
  6. Horses generally tend to appreciate and have a much longer life span than mechanized skidders.

The weekend was capped by a public horse pull in the local fairgrounds. Pennfield had donated a truckload of full feed sacks to create the load on the pulling sled. One after another, the six teams were hooked onto the sled, pulling it first one way and then the other, up and down the infield as feed sacks were added and the load got increasingly heavy. Jason Rutledge did the play-by-play over the PA system, sounding like a tobacco auctioneer. Styles differed radically between the teams. Charlie Adams’ calm training had taught his team of Belgians to lean into the load and pull off smoothly and powerfully. Chad Vogel’s Suffolks threw themselves into it with a hard jolt. Jimmy Brown’s dappled Belgian geldings scrambled, hooves flying, rears buckling down low. There’s more than one right way to skin this cat! And this sled-pulling thing is not just fun and games, it’s a re-creation of what happens in the forest when a team has to pull down a “hang-up,” a tree wedged aloft, unable to drop through the surrounding canopy. The fastest and best way to get it down is pull it from the bottom… just like pulling that loaded sled.

In spite of the friendly competition, the health of the horses is always the primary consideration. As the weight grows, some of the loggers withdraw their teams when they don’t want to put too great a challenge in front of them. Some of the horses are thought to be too young to give a “supreme effort.” Some aren’t fully trained to the work. Again, the loggers know their teams and do what they knew to be right for the horses. Ultimately the winning team had safely pulled a sled loaded to over 8000 pounds!

Rutledge says that the demand for his kind of logging is something like 100 times greater than his little corps can satisfy. That’s one reason he’s working so hard to train more Biological Woodsmen. Jason says: “This is a small but revolutionary movement in many ways. That is not what I say in most settings, but it is the truth. It is truly bottom up change, empowering the ground level practitioners with the cultural skills to be the superior practitioners of restorative forestry. It’s the method of choice for intelligent landowners. The ethics of restorative forestry show why this is best. This is a really complex issue, impossible to capture in sound bite segments. That’s just the reality of most truly good codes of human behavior in the natural world.”

So here in the rarified atmosphere of Northern Virginia, Jason Rutledge and his disciples are spreading the gospel of restorative forestry to an audience which appears willing to learn, both as practitioners of this wholesome art and as patrons. These men are a highly unusual combination of physical and intellectual abilities – the skills and the knowledge – which makes these men such effective stewards of the natural world, our agents in the woods. These are deeply good men, in the best sense of that word. In my home state of Pennsylvania, just a few score miles to the north, over 80% of the timberland is privately owned. The ownership turns over every ten years on average. That makes it an uphill battle to get converts to this oh-so-sound doctrine of long term commitment to forest health, but the Biological Woodsmen are just the ones to take it on.