At Work Improving Woodlots with Paul Cate

At Work Improving Woodlots with Paul Cate

Photo by Peter Allen

Sitting in Paul and Sandal Cate’s living room in East Montpelier, Vermont, you are literally surrounded by Paul’s life-work: a forestry philosophy put into action. The outer walls are cedar logs, cut behind the old Kent Tavern in the adjoining town of Calais and from a site a few miles farther afield in Cabot. Building the house in the early 1980s, Paul and his brother Weston scribed each log to fit snugly over the one below. Most of the joists and lumber also came from Calais, off the back side of Blackberry Hill.

And watching Cate at work in the woods, you know there’s nowhere else he’d rather be. Taking a wide stance and leaning his shoulder against a white pine, he sights across the back of his Husqvarna 357. He makes the face cut quickly and surely, chips flying. When the notch is done, he moves around to bore out behind the hinge. He sets an orange plastic wedge in place and gives it a solid tap with his axe before cutting the last of the fibers holding the tree upright. Taking a few swift steps to safety, he turns and grins as the tree’s narrow crown sneaks in between its neighbors and begins a graceful arc to the ground.

The woods got into Cate’s blood early. As a boy in rural farm country along the Connecticut River valley, Cate spent his days fishing and wandering in nearby woods. It came as a shock when the family moved to Montpelier when he was nine. “Paved streets, bicycles, and a rec field with a pool. I thought it was kind of the end of the world,” says Cate with a droll smile.

By high school, he was identifying trees, and in 1968 he entered the two-year Forest Technology program at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks. He thrived on the hands-on learning: surveying, timber harvesting, building log shelters, working in a sawmill. “I was more interested in being out in the woods than in being a pencil-and-paper student,” he remarks. But he continued on to the University of Vermont for a bachelor’s degree in Forestry. Looking back on his education, Cate thinks he got the best of both worlds – theory and practical skills. “One without the other doesn’t cut it very well,” he says. “I’d like to see more hands-on learning in four-year education.”

Once out of school, Cate started writing forest-management plans for clients. But consulting never quite suited him. Stresses mounted as he took on too many projects and couldn’t get to them all. Doing inventories with his neck craned back to look up into the trees, he started getting migraines. And he was frustrated. “I was writing management plans and relying on others to carry them out,” he recalls. “I wasn’t always satisfied with the results. I was seeing a compromised forest.” Taking stock of his work, Cate realized he needed to make a change.

He’d always liked the physical labor of cutting firewood and thinning for timber stand improvement. He was happier out in the woods with a chainsaw than he’d ever been at his desk. So, handing clients and management plans over to colleagues, he began focusing on his goal: small-scale logging done right.

For Cate, doing the job right means thinking long term. “The main goal is not production,” he states plainly. “The main goal is the future of the forest. For so long, we’ve taken the best and left the rest. Now we’re in catch-up mode with no end in sight.”

Because he’s dedicated to improving the forest in the long run, Paul refuses to be paid based on the value of the wood he cuts. He simply gets paid by the hour, removing any incentive to cut more valuable trees. At the outset, he gives landowners an estimate for each job. Usually the landowners make a profit after the hourly rate is deducted from log sales. Sometimes it will be a break-even deal, with sales just covering costs. Rarely, when the job mostly entails getting low-value trees out of the way, there will actually be a cost to the landowners, an investment in long-term forest value.

“Landowners are often amazed at what we leave,” says Cate. “If trees are growing well and increasing in value, we leave them. Once landowners understand that we’re looking at a long-term view, they feel much more confident.”

Photo by Peter Allen

Though most of the benefits of his work will be reaped by future generations, he does get to see a few of them. “I work in some places where I did pre-commercial thinnings 25 or 30 years ago,” he reflects. “Now we’re thinning again and getting three logs out of a tree.”

Cate’s focus on long-term forest health has shaped the evolution of his skills. For decades, he’s been interested in Scandinavian forestry methods. He was among the first loggers in Vermont to take Soren Erikkson’s Game of Logging training and has been using those directional felling techniques ever since. If Cate can control where a tree falls, he can prevent it from hitting others on the way down. Even a glancing blow can tear bark from a tree he wants to leave standing. With a patch of bark stripped off, that tree is susceptible to disease and will diminish in value. Cate takes pride in doing minimal damage to the trees he leaves for the future.

The imperative to minimize damage also explains Cate’s choice of equipment. In the 1980s, he learned about forwarders and was convinced they were the wave of the future. In forwarding operations, trees are limbed and cut into rough log lengths near the stump. A forwarder then picks up the logs, loads them much as a log truck does, and drives out of the woods with the logs clear of the ground. No full-length trees are skidded out, so the bark and exposed roots of standing stems don’t get scraped. And forwarders – often with six or eight wheels to spread out the weight – tend not to compact unfrozen soils as much as skidders do.

In 1997, Cate cobbled together his first forwarder by hitching a Metavic loader-trailer to an old Russian tractor, a Belarus. Long as the whole setup was – about 35 feet – it stuck strictly to log roads. From there, the tractor’s winch pulled logs within reach of the Metavic’s boom. Five years later, he went for a serious upgrade, investing in a Vimek forwarder. Just 6 feet wide and 23 feet long – and hydraulically steered from a center-pivot like a skidder – this little blue rig can go almost anywhere in the woods, barring steep terrain. Although dubbed “Babe” in honor of Paul Bunyan’s giant blue ox, the Vimek is small and lightweight. Its six wheels hardly leave a trace.

Cate feels strongly that doing the job right means thinking not only long term but also local. He wants to put landowners and end users back in touch with each other. “We need to get back to where wood goes from your woodlot to your neighbor’s barn. We need to make our money and our resources work for us instead of for whoever has the cheapest price advertised on a sign,” he says, raising his eyebrows in emphasis. “We have to realize what really constitutes the cheapest price in the long run.”

Last year, Cate and his frequent work partner, Cameron Cope – who now pulls the Metavic behind his own Valtra tractor – cut over 60,000 board feet of softwood to be used in framing a multi-unit co-housing project in East Montpelier. It was milled on the landing and traveled less than 10 miles from stump to building site.

At the end of the day, Cate’s bottom line is how he feels about what he’s done. “It feels good to improve the forest and make landowners feel good about it too. It’s very satisfying.”

Though Paul Cate enjoys doing what he can each day, he recognizes that future forests will depend on future forest professionals. “We need to have people starting out at younger ages, people taking a more holistic view at how to work in the forest, integrating forestry knowledge with woodland harvesting skills.”

Tovar Cerulli logged with Paul Cate from 2000 to 2002. He lives in north-central Vermont.


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