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Okonski skidding with oxen in a Chilean forest.
Adventures in Logging
Libby Montana’s Jerry Okonski
By Barbara Coyner
Among Northwest loggers, Jerry Okonski is something of a globetrotter. One look at his resume and it’s plain to see that the Libby, Montana-based consulting forester and logging contractor has put on some miles in his career.
Born in Chicago as part of the Baby Boom generation, Okonski honed his technical skills in his family’s machine shop and then added a work ethic as an early morning newspaper boy and Eagle Scout. Later he polished his academic credentials at both the University of Montana and the University of British Columbia, after completing an Army enlistment. The broad background gave him contacts that eventually led to logging and forestry stints in Chile, Canada, Appalachia, and the Northwest. These days, he operates Great Northern Land Services Inc. out of Libby, and he just wrapped up a unique land stewardship project funded with DNRC fire funds and stimulus money. Although well traveled, he calls the forests of western Montana home.
“The image of the West always had a lot of appeal for me,” says Okonski when asked how a Midwest city kid got into the western natural resource scene. Once done with high school, he headed to the University of Montana at Missoula to get a degree in Forestry/Wood Products. After graduation, he and his wife Mary Ann packed up for Oregon to tackle the M.B.A. program at the University of Oregon.
Vietnam’s Tet Offensive changed Okonski’s direction as he enlisted in the Army and ironically wound up stationed in Alaska, where he added a pilot’s license to his list of accomplishments. As his patriotic duties drew to a close, he stayed north of the Lower 48 to get a Masters in Forestry specializing in forest engineering at the University of British Columbia. By 1975, he was ready to put his forest engineering skills to work at the J. Neils Division of the St. Regis Paper Company in Libby. “That’s where I began work in all phases of skyline logging.” Okonski recalls, “To significantly increase road spacing, jammers and other ground lead systems were being used less.”
A radio-controlled Maki carriage with no external stop made it possible to do 1,500 feet downhill — a boon to skyline logging efficiency in earlier jobs.
In 1980, Okonski and business partner Jack Jay began Logging Systems Inc. (LSI) and rolled out a custom built skyline yarder from Rosedale Machine Shop in Chilliwack, B.C. LSI took on downhill yarding as well as 1800-foot spans uphill over intermediate supports. Jerry and Jack devised a truck-mounted yarder for mobility, using an off-highway Canadian Kenworth with a Detroit Diesel/Automatic Allison combination. The trusty yarder operated mainly in northwest Montana, the Cascades, and the Lochsa in north central Idaho.
All the while, Okonski and Jay tinkered with efficiency. “Our theory was that we did not want the yarder to swing.” Okonski says. “We considered it a capital cost we could avoid.” Experimenting with Christy and Maki carriages, they worked with manufacturers to get rid of the infamous stop device.
“Jack was a real innovator, and he was always thinking,” Okonski says. “For example, we had to be one of the first in the business to use a ring and toggle system. We designed various ergonomic toggles and spliced our own ring chokers. We took a lot of pride in pre-setting chokers, a quick hook-up time with an optimal payload, a less than 20 second un-hook time at the landing, and an LS-78 low cab that kept the chute clean. Our turn time was really good, which gave us better productivity, as well as a better margin of safety.”
Logging in B.C. One of two sides Okonski operated in 1989 featured a Rosedale Sidewinder two-drum machine with strawline — it had 3,000 feet of 1-inch line drum capacity on the skyline.
“We did other little safety innovations, as well. In 1981 one of our yarder operators thought that a simple block with two sheaves tethered to the yarder could save a chokerman’s fingers. The upper block rode on the skyline, the lower block held the mainline. The tether length was adjusted to the landing situation,” explains Okonski. “When the gravity carriage was at a downhill position, the mainline would normally lay on the ground along the logs in the chute. If the loader operator attempted to take logs from the chute, he could also be snagging the mainline, pulling it, unbeknownst to him or the chokerman. At the right instant, a man’s fingers could get pinched. The slave block kept the mainline beyond where the logs would lay in the chute. While the loader went into the chute to clear it, the line would never get caught in the logs.”
In 1985, when Jack realized his young family needed more of his time, the partners split and Okonski branched out on his own to form Timber Tech Inc. The outfit boasted three yarders with a total crew of 21.
“We had great loggers and were doing various kinds of exotic jobs, like long-span downhill yarding,” Okonski recalls. Meanwhile the Canadians in southeast B.C. were paying attention. They wanted to migrate away from trailing on steeper slopes with ground-based equipment. Crestbrook Forest Industries Ltd. (CFI) in Cranbrook proposed a five-year plan to institute skyline yarding.
Harvesting Radiata Pine in Chilean hills.
Another company, another direction. Okonski accepted the challenge and created Columbia Harvest Systems Ltd. to focus on skylining in the Rocky Mountain trench. Working from Elko to Golden, he teamed up with CFI.
“They had one large yarder based on coastal technology, and they weren’t using good technique. Our wood was much smaller on average than coastal wood. We strain tested various anchoring situations, established some baseline productivity, did thinning and partial cuts, and increased road spacings,” says Okonski. “The idea was to train crews in skyline methodology. We employed 10-15 men on two sides.”
In the fourth year of operations, Okonski sold his yarders to committed Canadian contractors. He then consulted for ten more years on production, environmental practices, safety, and wood supply issues.
When a delegation from Chile toured the Northwest, they visited Okonski’s Montana operation — things were lining up for him to do some Latin logging.
“They were looking for ideas on how to thin their Radiata Pine on steep slopes. They liked our operation the best,” he remembers. Two years later, he was in Chile training loggers to thin 12-year-old Radiata Pine with a skyline system. He and his family lived full-time in Chile, conducting business from 1993 until the 9-11 attack. He then felt compelled to return to the USA.
After returning home, an opportunity came about to work in the central Appalachians, amidst the hardwood forests of southwest Virginia. He bought a Cat 320 Custom Forestry Machine from Finning in B.C. It was a fully guarded low cab with excavator boom and Hultdins grapple saw.
“It was a lovely machine to work for shovel logging or nursing a yarder,” Okonski recalls. After four years and limited success, he realized that labor issues were too great despite help from various state and local agencies to find alternative labor sources. Once again, time for a change.
Okonski has continually adapted to new technology as each wave has hit the industry. He’s practiced cut-to-length and skyline logging, tinkering with equipment and techniques to become more efficient.
Harvesting to Biomass
Okonski has been like a homing pigeon, returning to Montana after his various national and international gigs. Since he formed Great Northern Land Services Inc. in 2007, he’s kept busy working on biomass analyses, manufacturing opportunities, various consulting projects, and timber harvesting.
The Montana DNRC developed an RFP to do fuel reduction and forest health improvements on private and state lands based upon a surplus in their firefighting fund, combined with some stimulus money. In 2009, he presented DNRC with a complex proposal that would thin acreages in Flathead, Lincoln, and Sanders counties.
“The big challenge was how to get landowners onboard,” he says of the proposed project. In Flathead County, it brought together 26 diverse landowners with adjoining five to twenty acre parcels. “A Wildfire Risk Map rated the proposal area with a very high risk rating. The project targeted a priority area with the potential for huge property losses should a wildfire get uncontrolled momentum,” he recounts.
There were multiple goals to the Montana DNRC project: to help maintain a timber harvesting infrastructure, supply logs and pulp to the industry, and create healthier, more fire resistant private and state forests. Ironically, the fuel reduction and thinning project was to provide pulp logs about the same time the Smurfit-Stone Pulp Mill in nearby Missoula closed due to Smurfit’s bankruptcy filing. It was a serious blow to Montana’s wood products manufacturing sector—and to Okonski’s project.
Lately, the cornerstone in Okonski’s equipment stable has been a unique Cameco Industries forwarder developed in the mid-90s. Cameco made sugar cane harvesting equipment in Louisiana and was diversifying into cut-to-length equipment. The six-wheel-drive machine, with its 8-foot 6-inch width and Cranab Swedish boom, has been just the ticket for thinning work.
However, it was quite a process getting the forwarder to its productive state. After John Deere Company purchased Cameco Industries, the prototype forwarder was mothballed, then sold for salvage to a local who passed on. The machine wound up on e-Bay, sold to a young man in Colorado, who subsequently sold it to Okonski. He transported the forwarder home. With the help of a friend, he troubleshot, among other items, a boom that hadn’t worked in years. There were no manuals to reference, but through lots of brainstorming and research, he finally got it running smoothly.
For Okonski, it’s been a hopscotch of jobs and locations over the years. One thing he’s done, however, is adapt to the new technology as each wave has hit the industry. He’s practiced cut-to-length and skyline logging especially to his advantage, tinkering with equipment and techniques to be efficient, while also working toward satisfying his widely divergent client base. As the Northwest timber industry ebbs and flows, Jerry Okonski remains vigilant for new and challenging opportunities.