Logging culture is part of the fabric of rural communities in the Northeast. One might go so far as to say that the logger is a pillar of rural life, in the sense that his trade – like the farmer’s – helps maintain the rural working landscape that most of us idealize. If you live in a rural place, you’re likely familiar with scenes like the one in Kathleen Kolb’s beautiful painting on page 68. You know what that landing sounds like, smells like. You can feel that late winter sun taking the edge off the morning chill and hear the voices of the men as they talk over the loader.
Where I’m from in southern Vermont, I still see plenty of loggers at landings, but I don’t often see or hear them in the wood utilization schemes that are widely debated in the local papers. Around here, biomass is still dominating headlines. One proposed plant in the town of Pownal is largely dead, though another, a combined energy, pellet, and greenhouse facility that’s being proposed in Fair Haven, may materialize.
The news stories covering these proposed plants have a detached air about them. The exclusively positive vision of the mill spokesman is juxtaposed with predictably negative screed from an anti-biomass activist. The mediating perspective is usually provided by someone from academia, who sort of looks right past the specifics of the local situation and makes broad, general nods to the vagaries of carbon accounting, or amorphous regional wood supply studies, or maybe the abundance of eucalyptus pulp in Australia – his or her point being that if you look at things from a global perspective everything is interconnected. In an academic sense, that’s true, but in both a figurative and practical sense it’s about 10,000 miles from life as it’s known in the local rural economy.
Of course the perspectives of all of these parties are more nuanced than I’m giving them credit for – they’re victims of having to make a case in two sentences or less. And I’m not criticizing journalists – we suffer from the same forced abridgment in everything we publish. The point is simply that in all of this high-minded talk about responsible wood utilization, what’s often missing is a logger’s voice.
In my town, a place within the supply radius of the proposed Fair Haven mill, ag-land-to forest succession, and in some cases a legacy of high-grading, has led to a wealth of marginal forestland and the need for a dependable low-grade wood market. From a management perspective, the idea is that improvement cutting now can set the stage for future success; in 50 or 100 years, a stand of pasture pine and squirrelly red maple can become a stand of mature sawtimber, and the low-grade wood that’s taken out now can provide us with local jobs and locally produced energy.
But this is the perspective of a magazine editor, one who trades in observations and ideas, not pulpwood and sawlogs. When I asked a logger friend what he thought, the conversation went quickly to raw economics and the view from the field. He said that the nearest chip mill – a 100-mile round trip from here – is currently paying $24 a ton for low-grade wood. This makes a log truck load worth about $430. If you figure $2 a mile in fuel and depreciation – the going rate for a big rig – and a fair wage for a morning’s work driving truck, he ends up making around $150 for cutting, skidding, bucking to 8 foot lengths, and loading a tri-axle load of wood. This doesn’t factor in fuel and skidder depreciation, insurance premiums if he has them, travel to and from the job site, money for a forester or landowner, nothing else. So sure, another market for that wood might be nice because the competition could bring higher prices. But his margins have been squeezed so tight for so long by a lot of different parties that he’ll get excited about a new mill when he sees a decent wage.
This would be a good jumping off point for a lot of different conversations, but the idea here was just to point out that the logger is an often ignored link in the wood supply chain. And while we’re discussing big new ideas – be it a new bio-energy plant in Vermont or a newly reopened paper mill in Maine – we’d be wise to take into account the economics of forestry endeavors at the woods level.
I like to think that there’s still a place for a logger with a cable skidder going forward, even in a fuel-wood cut. I like to imagine that someday my kids won’t see the loggers in Kathleen’s paintings as relics, even while they’ll certainly giggle at the funny looking old vehicles. I’m interested in what you loggers and logging contractors see out there. What’s the woods business like in your part of the Northeast? Send us a letter and tell us your story, and we’ll do our best to put some sort of appropriate frame around your thoughts. NW