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Cliff Walker, owner of Walker Logging, standing beside recently harvested fir trees.
Meeting Challenges Head On
Walker Logging, Willits, Calif.
By Kathy Coatney
With a shortened working season and year-round bills, plus more and more state regulations, struggle is a way of life for logger Cliff Walker, owner of Walker Logging in Willits, Calif.
Despite the challenges and long hours, Walker works in beautiful locations where most Americans would plan once-in-a-lifetime mountain vacations, and he has no thoughts of retirement. He plain and simply loves logging.
In the Mills
Walker grew up in the sawmill community of Willits and started working in sawmills in 1956, then began driving a logging truck in 1958. In 1963, Walker went out on his own and bought his first truck, a 1953 Peterbuilt from Bob Alecksick, who eventually became his partner in 1967. The two ran 12 trucks until 1975 when Alecksick died of a heart attack.
“After Bob died, we got rid of everything but the trucks I already had and started logging,” Walker says.
Walker established Walker Logging with his wife, Brenda, and based their operation in Willits. Logging turned out to be a way of life for others in the Walker family. Cliff’s son, Dan Walker, owns and runs a logging truck and works with his father. Walker’s grandson, Jonathon Malugani, also worked in the business and planned to take it over, until his untimely death in 2012.
Walker says he has logged most of California — from Susanville to Santa Cruz to the coastal redwoods.
Short Season & Owls
The short season makes it nearly impossible to keep employees, and it makes everything more difficult, but Walker has the benefit of reliable employees. “I’m lucky to have a good crew,” Walker says. Like many logging operations, a number of his employees have been with him for years and are like family.
Walker’s logging season used to be eight to nine months but continues to get shorter. Today it’s only five to six months long, and he attributes that to the spotted owl.
Every year before Walker can start logging, the spotted owls have to be hooted. (Hooting, for those not familiar with the activity, is when the California Fish and Game Commission goes out and hoots for owls to get an owl count.) Some years the hooting is finished early; others it can be as late as mid-summer before the hooting is completed, he said.
“I really don’t know what the hang-up is. On this job, I got started pretty early, but some jobs still aren’t started,” Walker says, adding he has to wait for the hooting to be signed off and that can take a lot of time.
It’s not just the owls that keep the season short. “The weather, particularly in the coastal area, will also shut us down too,” adds Walker.
Andrew Howell (L) and Rick Chapman (R) running 660 Stihls. Walker says he’s seeing less competition and more optimism in the market.
Economy Moving in the Right Direction
Walker, like other loggers he’s spoken with recently, feels things are picking up.
“I don’t know whether it’s the market or whether just more people are dropping out [of logging],” he says. But he’s seeing less competition and more optimism.
Walker is running two sides this year. At the time of this article, he was running one side at Fort Seward that was producing about 20 loads a day. “I have one over on the coast to do yet,” he says, adding he is harvesting fir on the Fort Seward side and redwood on the other side.
Walker prefers to run just one side. “Sometimes one job will overlap the other one and I have to run two, but I’d rather just do one,” he says.
Iron in the Woods
Walker has a 525 and 518 Cat skidder, a 966 Cat loader, and a Link-Belt 3400 heel boom loader at the Fort Seward side. More equipment — another heel boom and a D7 Cat Crawler — will come in later.
Being a small operation with a lean budget means repairing what you have and keeping it running and not a lot of new equipment.
Walker runs six logging trucks, two Kenworth and four Peterbuilts (all 1990 models), and a lowbed. His list of logging equipment includes:
- Caterpillar (Cat) D-7F crawler
- Two Cat D-6D crawlers, one with a grapple and one with a winch
- Two Cat skidders, a 525 model and a 518
- Cat 966 log loader and a 950B log loader
- Link-Belt 3400 heel boom loader
- Kobelco loader/yarder (Yoder)
- Chainsaws: Stihl 660 and Husqvarna 372 and 390
Variety of support equipment: trucks, graders, and water trucks
“I really like the Link-Belt,” Walker says. He likes equipment that not only operates well, but is both easy to repair and easy to get parts for.
Walker likes the Cat pretty well too. “We had Cat engines in all of our trucks at one point.” He also likes that Cats are easy to work on, and if he has problems, a Cat dealer is nearby.
“We use Stihl 660 chainsaws and Husqvarna 390 and 372 chainsaws. I consider both equally good,” says Walker. “But I like Stihls. It basically comes down to personal preference.”
Link-Belt 3400 working at the landing. Walker’s team has to be as efficient as possible to make up for the coastal short season.
In 2011, Walker and his crew accepted a once-in–a-lifetime job. They took down a redwood tree with a base that was nearly 10 feet in diameter, and it produced 35,000 board feet of lumber. “It’s rare we get an opportunity to harvest a tree of this magnitude any more,” he says.
The tree was a massive undertaking. It leaned over a creek requiring climbing and rigging to pull it into a “lay,” Walker says. Before the tree was felled, fallers climbed the tree and placed the rigging about 80 feet off the ground.
It took a carefully placed undercut, then back-cut before a D-7 Cat pulled the tree over center and the undercut guided it into the layout.
The first four cuts of the tree were too big to fit on Walker’s short bed truck, so they were placed on his lowbed trailer and delivered to Willits Redwood Company.
Walker says seeing three generations of loggers and machines working to accomplish the incredible task is something he will always remember.
For the time being though, he’ll be concentrating on getting those smaller logs out of the woods as efficiently as possible to make the most of his short season.