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Still Building Roads After All These Years
Cascade H & A
By Andrea Watts
What does a logging road running through the tree-covered hills of eastern Snohomish County and the green fairways of a Seattle golf course have in common? The same Cat D7 or the “old girl,” as Bob Hanner describes her, was used in their construction.
Bob’s Cat D7 only had a few hours on it before being used to build roads for Scott Paper in the mid-1970s and then at Battle Creek Golf Course twenty-five years ago. Today it is still part of the equipment portfolio that Cascade H & A, LLC uses to build logging roads throughout Snohomish, Skagit and King Counties.
Miles of Roads
Dale Amberson and Bob Hanner are both second-generation logging road builders; Amberson’s father started building roads for Scott Paper and Pilchuck Tree Farm in the 1960s and Dale joined him when he was 14, working summers during high school driving trucks and operating CATs and shovels at the job sites.
Bob Hanner worked with Dale’s father until his untimely passing, which ended the Amberson family business of road construction. After graduating high school, Amberson worked logging, heavy construction, bought and drove his own logging truck until he was approached to do a land clearing job for the new Battle Creek golf course in Tulalip. Amberson asked Bob to do the job with him, and with that Cascade H & A was formed — the two men who worked together as kids became partners.
Golf Courses to Logging Roads
We built golf courses for ten years around the Puget Sound area and work remained steady until 1998, when we faced a “point of either getting big [going outside of Washington State] or going back to our roots,” Amberson says. Even while building golf courses, they continued their side business of constructing logging roads for loggers, landowners and Pilchuck Tree Farm, so it was an easy decision to transition back to their roots.
Their SFI-certified company has a 75-mile working radius around Arlington, which suits Amberson and Hanner fine because they prefer sticking to jobs close to home and running operations further away become cost prohibitive. Ten years ago this wasn’t an issue, profit margins were higher and the costs of doing business lower. The price of fuel, whether to update or buy new equipment, and debt loads are now reasons why Amberson focus on running jobs efficiently.
Recently Cascade H & A purchased a used 1990 Peterbilt lowbed truck instead of continuing to rent one, as they had for five years.
“We move all our own equipment, and with two to three jobs going at a time, being able to shuffle the equipment between jobs sites makes us more versatile,” Amberson says. “We just couldn’t be without it [the Peterbilt]…it makes the whole operation work.”
Another recent new purchase was of a CAT 568 excavator. Its hydraulic quick changes allow the operator to switch between bucket sizes without having to stop the machine.
Amberson says that while they looked at other brands, “[We] felt it [CAT 568] had more benefits that we liked,” and this purchase joins several other pieces of CAT equipment (one D7, one D6, two D5s, two 950 Wheel Loaders, one 140 G Grader and three Kobelco excavators) in the company’s 22-piece portfolio.
Impressive Client List
Cascade H & A, does the road work for companies who bid on Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) timber sales, and they do repeat work for Sierra Pacific Industries, Hampton Tree Farms, Hancock Forest Management, Pilchuck Tree Farm and, and Weyerhaeuser, which now owns Longivew Timber.
Amberson likes working for the bigger companies, and of these landowners, it has been Pilchuck Tree Farm that Cascade H & A has worked with the longest. Amberson says that the tree farm logs 250 to 300 acres each year, which keeps one crew busy with road work and maintenance, and brush stacking. He appreciates Pilchuck as being “hands-on forestry.”
During the course of a year, Amberson estimates that their company builds 15 to 18 miles of road a year, give or take a mile, mostly all brand-new construction, though they do some reconstruction work. A request for a bridge or two comes along once or every other year. Depending upon the job, the roads may be temporary, as is the case for many on DNR land, or permanent on private lands such as Pilchuck Tree Farm.
He says that “scheduling is always the fun part of the business,” because while some jobs are planned a year in advance or they are given a couple months to finish, other jobs have them starting right away. And by doing work in the convergence zone of western Washington, Amberson and Hanner have to work around the weather because unexpected rain showers occur even in the summer.
They also have schedule their work around the cutters’ schedule, as the trees need to be felled before their crews can even begin. Amberson describes having a pretty good pool of cutters to select from, but their services are always in demand, and he anticipates a future shortage if more young people don’t enter the profession. He sees a similar situation for the timber industry as a whole.
Even during the economic downturn and the inevitable wet winter months of the Pacific Northwest, Cascade H & A’s crew of a dozen employees is busy for ten to eleven months out of the year, something Amberson sees as necessary to keep good employees sticking around.
“It’s nice when the local economy can support the local people,” he says. Of their crew, many have been with Cascade H & A for over a decade, and because of their experience and camaraderie, Amberson doesn’t have to be out on the job every day, freeing him to handle the management side of the business: payroll, biding, and purchasing.
“It really helps to have good people working for us,” he adds. Even Bob, who is supposed to be retired, still works during the busy season and jokingly said, “now I work for my kid and Dale.”
Three years ago, the “H” in the company name changed from Bob Hanner to his son, Jeff, one of the company’s longest-working employees and a hard worker, having started working with Amberson and his father when he was 18. At the DNR timber sale near Lake Roesiger, Amberson and Jeff walk the future location of a road, discussing where the bench will be and how the equipment can be safely maneuvered along the hillside. “[It] takes time to know what you’re looking at,” Amberson says, of how he sees a road through the stand of Douglas-fir and western hemlock trees and the understory vegetation covers the uneven ground. Because he is “bidding on something you can’t see,” they do face unexpected setbacks; rock on grade requires drilling and blasting, which sometimes can hurt the bottom line.
Because Amberson and Hanner keep their work local, they frequently bid against the same people each time for jobs, but they have a good relationship with their competitors. A.L.R.T. Corporation does the rock pit drilling that produces the rock needed for road ballast and rock crushing. For the rock crushing, Amberson rents that equipment six months of the year, as it is high maintenance and expensive to own.
For hauling the rock to the newly constructed roads, they rely upon four company-owned dump trucks (Kenworth, International and Mack trucks). The 1979 Kenworth used to haul logs years ago now hauls rock. “They’re a good old truck,” he says. “If [we were] going to update [our] trucks, that’s what [we’d] buy, a Kenworth.”
Evolution of Road Construction
When it comes to road construction, Amberson says things have fundamentally changed over the years, all in an effort to get water faster off the road. More drainage, larger pipes and sediment traps are all practices that previously weren’t used, while everything was just side cast back in the day.
“Now on slopes 50 percent and greater, we do a full bench cut and end haul all the material away to a stable dump site,” he adds.
In western Washington, Amberson says, all-weather roads are a necessity, and a good road requires a good amount of ballast, which causes the costs to run quite a bit more with the drilling, shooting and crushing.
Environmental regulations can be challeninging. While Amberson acknowledges the necessity, they get worse each year. “That stuff just keeps coming up and you have to deal with it.”
When asked about the non-point source pollution issue that was recently and tentatively settled by the courts, Amberson says that zero-sediment control is impossible, even for Mother Nature. “We do a good job up here of taking care of the forest.”
For Amberson, the proof is that he’s building roads in areas where his father built roads many years ago. “I hate to say we’ve almost made the full circle. Proof is in the pudding, it does comes back around.”
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