By Diane Mettler
Steep slope logging may be the new big thing, but it’s been part of Starks Timber Processing’s operation for four years. The company, based out of Puyallup, Washington, purchased one of Tigercat’s very first levelers in the state.
Today, Starks owns three Tigercat LS855C shovel loggers, and the machines provide new options not available a handful of years ago. But Starks wants to spread the word that although it opens up new possibilities for the industry, without proper training, mechanized steep slope logging also holds potential dangers for the industry as well.
Getting Started with Steep Slope
Kusiah McCullough, an LS855C operator for Starks, recalls how he first got involved with steep slope logging. He was working up in Alaska and received a call from Starks Timber owner John Starks. “He basically said, ‘I’ve got this idea. They’ve come out with this new machine for steep ground, the leveler shovel. Are you interested in running it?’ I said, ‘Sure’.”
McCullough came back to Washington and got to work, learning the ins and outs of operating the new LS855C. “We did a lot of long nights, long days trying to turn this system into a viable system that could produce and be safe at the same time.”
That was four years ago, and today, with approximately 10,000 hours on the leveler under his belt, McCullough is proud of Starks Timber’s operation. “We have no men on the ground. With our steep ground shovels, we set up and feed our wood to a grapple yarder.”
When asked if the company ever considered machines other than Tigercat, McCullough says there was no contest. “I’ve tested a lot of other people’s machines, and nobody’s comes close to what Tigercat is producing. They’ve been doing it for a long time, and their machines are just superior.”
Learning the Ropes
Starks Timber discovered early on that mechanized steep slope logging isn’t just about taking a machine up a hill. Operators have to be aware and react to the numerous variables—from soil types to machine limitations.
“You have to know how to keep from putting yourself in dangerous situations, just to get that one last log,” says McCullough. “You have to know what your machine’s capable of, what it’s not capable of, and your limitations as an operator. And that right there is a very fine line.”
Operating the Tigercat LS855C wasn’t just new to Starks Timber, but to the industry at large. Before the leveler, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had only allowed Starks Timber to harvest on slopes up to a 40 percent incline. Starks had to prove they could safely go steeper.
McCullough says those first couple jobs were tense, “We had the DNR watching us like hawks. So we had to do an extra good job.”
The DNR was impressed. After only two jobs, Starks Timber was allowed to harvest on sustained 60 to 65 percent slopes. “They don’t like us to go over 70 percent slopes, but in small areas (not sustained slopes) we push 70 percent pretty regularly.”
The DNR was also impressed with the leveler itself. In a lot of the DNR contracts, mechanized steep slope harvesting has to be done with only Tigercat levelers.
Today everyone is looking to quickly add mechanized steep slope harvesting to their repertoire, and that worries the Starks team because it takes time to create a safe system.
“People have to be trained properly to run these machines or someone is going to get hurt or possibly killed. And if that happens, it’s going to ruin it for everybody,” says McCullough.
Currently there is some talk around training, and Starks Timber believes certification couldn’t come soon enough. “Anyone can go out and say ‘I’m qualified to do this job.’ To actually be certified to do this job—some sort of a license to do this steep slope stuff—that’s a completely different thing. And that means training programs put in place.”
Unfortunately, with everyone busy in the woods working, it’s hard to find the people to step up to be the trainers and certifiers.
McCullough has trained several operators at Starks Timber and says finding them has been a struggle. “I’ve had guys with 25 to 30 years of shovel logging experience—very good shovel loggers—completely freeze up on hillsides. They look at me and say, ‘You’re nuts, I ain’t doing it.’”
However, he adds, “In the first 10 or 20 hours, it’s obvious if the operator is right for the job. And then you try to teach them the feel of the machine; what it’s capable of. Once you figure out what the machine’s
capable of, it’s amazing.”
In addition to being able to reach places that were previously only accessible through cable logging with yoders or towers, the Tigercat LS855C provides efficiency. Starks Timber estimates it’s about 85 percent as productive on steep slopes as on level ground.
And with the LS855C, there is less impact, which is good for the environment. “There are less roads and less disturbance of the soil. And in the places where we do disturb the ground, we repair the ground when we’re done. You can stand back and look at the unit, and you can’t even tell how it was logged.”
Working with Tigercat has proved to be a good experience as well. “They’re awesome people,” says McCullough. “We’ve done a lot of collaboration with Tigercat on future engineering of the machine. We’re always communicating with each other, and they’re always asking guys like me, ‘What can we do different? What can we improve on? What do we need to do to make things safer for you guys?’ They’re an absolutely phenomenal company.”
Staying Focused on Safety
No matter how phenomenal the equipment, McCullough and the entire Starks team, continue to push for more safety when it comes to steep slope harvesting.
“If one of these machines tips, you’re not going to stop rolling for about 20 minutes, and that’s going to leave a mark,” says McCullough. “You can’t turn someone loose on one of these machines until you know they’re ready. You need to break them in slow.”
If McCullough could start industry training tomorrow, the primary focus would be on teaching the operators when they are in danger. “The machines will give you a huge false sense of security,” he says. “You feel so stable on a hillside. But if you slide off of a stump, or if you slip on a log that’s sideways in the mud underneath you or in the dirt, it’ll send you flying down the hill real fast.”
Secondly, before taking an 85,000 lb machine up the side of a mountain, McCullough would require the operator to know the machine front to back. He says sitting at a 65 percent slope, it’s vital to know the machine’s limits and whether it is operating properly.
“If we [the industry] set standards and the training programs, we’ll be so much farther ahead in the long run,” says McCullough. “Everyone will be so much safer.”
On the Cover
Starks Timber Processing out of Puyallup, Washington, operating
one of its Tigercat LS855Cs on steep slopes.
Cedarland Forest Resources helps
private landowners find their niche.
The Reality of Steep Slope Logging
Starks Timber Processing discusses the need for safety when it comes logging
on steep slopes.
Transitioning to the Next Generation
After 35 years, R. L. Smith Logging has
seen is all. The next challenge will be passing the torch.
Wood Castle Fine Hardwood Furniture mills wood to guarantee supply.
Three Questions to Ask Before Buying a Log Loader
How to make the most of your next purchase.
Climbing Steep Slopes with the ClimbMAX
B.C.’s Tolko Industries is the first operation in North America to use a winch-assist forestry machine—the ClimbMAX steep slope harvester.
A look at processing heads.