Guest column—from south of the line

The forest industry needs to face the reality of what things cost—and pay accordingly

By Rene van der Merwe

There was a time when I thought that no one would ever consider a contract proposal like this (see Logging Contractors Wanted sidebar story), but loggers across America now accept them everyday! Why they do this is a subject for another day. The end result is an industry in crisis. An industry that’s confused by the inexplicable lack of integrity and reason by the people whose forests they have cared for like their own children for generations—contrasted by the apparent reluctance to face the reality of what things cost.                                   

Logging conditions in the Pacific Northwest are some of the most challenging in the world. Intermountain loggers face the realities of cost accounting jobs with up to 65 per cent slopes, filled with a variety of environmental impact constraints like Class 2 and streams and the bonus of estimating production levels in natural stands with up to 1 species and many different diameter classes.                                   

Cuts in logging costs confront contract supervisors whose sister companies in Brazil or Chile work with far less overhead. Harvester operators in these countries earn $14,000 per year. Until every tree is planted at the same time, in perfect little rows, on flat ground, thinned two or three times, and all underbrush removed, there can be no such thing as a universal logging rate! And what happened to niche marketing of our trees and unique species? If you fail to differentiate your product, it is just another commodity. At the end of the day, logging is one of the top 10 most dangerous occupations in America, and loggers need to be paid competitively for the risk and the investments they make. If a plumber with a tool belt charges $75 an hour and is paid on the spot after completing his job, being paid less than $25 an hour for performing the mindful work of a harvester operator seems eerily out of whack.                                   

When the price of a product is fixed above market value, there is a surplus of that item—as the Middle East has discovered with oil. When the price of a product is fixed below market value, it typically disappears—as the Russians discovered with everything.                                   

We have here a basic law of economics. If loggers continue to work below their cost, or with miserable margins at best, another segment of independent small business America will cease to exist.                                   

“A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be. Moderation in temper is always a virtue, but moderation in principle is always a vice.” Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, 1792. Rene van der Merwe has been in the equipment business for 2 years —the first six years in South Africa followed by six years in the Southern US, and was involved in introducing one of the first thinning feller bunchers.                                   

For the last 1 years, Rene has lived in the Pacific Northwest and is currently the forestry product manager for heavy equipment distributor, Modern Machinery, a heavy equipment distributor based in Missoula, Montana, with branches covering the Pacific Northwest  

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