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By Kurt Glaeseman

Lee Miller comes from a family of self-made men. His father, Tim, was the son of homesteaders on the Oregon coast, and after a stint packing for timber cruisers, Tim became one himself. He worked for several of the large timber companies and gradually accumulated timberland of his own.

Owner Lee Miller (seated) and CTL manager Dan Mace (standing).

Lee put himself through Oregon State University, spending his summers running skidders and CATs for a logger uncle near Wrangell, Alaska. When Lee graduated, he had a viable offer from a solid company, but he wanted to work on his own. His father made room for him on Miller land, and Lee remembers those years, in the early 1980s, as lean and precarious. His wife taught school “and largely supported the family.”

Growing Into His Own
While Lee was working on a political campaign to promote herbicide spraying, he networked into a job planting trees and cutting scotch broom along a scenic highway. He gathered a crew, and suddenly he was a contractor with his own company. The number of employees doubled each year; by 1986 he had 80 people working for him, and he moved the operation headquarters from the coast to the small town of Philomath, Ore., about seven miles west of Corvallis.                                   

Recognizing the fragile economic balance traditional loggers were experiencing, Miller decided to branch out and offer a variety of services that could swell or diminish seasonally. Today, Miller Timber Services, Inc. offers consulting advice, contracted crews for forestry management, logging, thinning, fire prevention and fire fighting, herbicide spraying, slash control, and tree planting. (He plants about four million seedlings a year.)

Adaptable Crew
Miller and his cut-to-length manager, Dan Mace, speak highly of the adaptable Miller employees, a high percentage of whom are Hispanic. In a time when good labor is hard to find, the hardworking Hispanics are loyal to management, and management to them. “These guys are what our parents were,” says Miller. “They have a good work ethic, good values, and a strong family makeup. They look out for one another — money may get scarce, but no one is going to go hungry.”                                   

Mace agrees, “We’re all a product of ‘where we were when.’ These guys are similar to our Depression-aged parents. They expect to work hard physically and expect machinery to do only what they can’t do themselves. This conservative attitude is easier on the machinery and makes it last longer.” And Hispanics figure prominently at all levels of the Miller operation — machine operators, choker setters, foremen, planters, and firefighters.                                   

In the summer season, most of the reforestation crew become firefighters. Miller has had firefighting contracts in all the western states including Alaska. A Miller group was in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and moved with refugees to Texas where they helped monitor a shelter and a warehouse. Another Miller crew was in Texas, looking for parts and debris, after the space shuttle disintegrated.

Choosing Ponsse
Miller runs a variety of equipment in his logging operation, but a standout would be the Ponsse machinery on the CTL sides. “We saw a demonstration of this Finnish-made Ergo harvester at the Pacific Logging Conference in Clatskanie in 2002,” says Miller, “and we liked its stability in large timber.”                                   

In 2003, the first Ergo processor was delivered, even though there was a bit of concern about the lack of dealers in the area. “That was no problem,” laughs Miller. “We had no downtime or breaks, and if we needed a new part, next-day delivery got it to us from Wisconsin. And if we need a technical mechanic, Ponsse will fly one to us.”                                   

Within a year, Miller had purchased a Ponsse Buffalo King forwarder to work with the harvester. In 2006, the company acquired another Buffalo forwarder and another Ergo harvester. “Even though the Ponsse has a large head and will take a big log, it’s still nimble in the woods and very operator friendly,” says Miller. Dan Mace agrees, “It’s big, but it’s still a graceful machine out there in the stand.” Operators love the cab. The seat rotates 360 degrees so the operator can always be looking straight ahead. The dangle-head bar can handle a 25-inch stem, and the boom reaches out an impressive 32 feet.

At Work
Dan Mace describes a typical thinning operation where the plan calls for a reduction from 370 to 200 trees per acre. At 25 years of age, the stand may need to be thinned of fir, alder, and cherry, and perhaps lodgepole pine in eastern Oregon.                                   

An operation could see removal of stems from 6 to 12 inches, with lengths ranging from 12 to 20 feet for most jobs. Mace is a calm, articulate supervisor, whose background did not include forestry management. He retired after 25 years with Hewlett Packard in Roseville, Calif., and Corvallis, Ore., where he had been a mid-level engineering manager. Dan’s atypical experience intrigued Lee. “I saw someone skilled in administration and people management,” remembers Miller. “Those skills could generalize. We could teach him what he needed to know about our operation. You can teach skills like that, but you can’t train intelligence.”

Operator Jose “Pepe” Vidrio climbs to the cab of the Ponsse Buffalo Forwarder.  Cross-trained

Mace likes the interaction with machinery, harvest plans, and personnel. He points with respect to a landing where operator Jose “Pepe” Vidrio moves effortlessly between the processor and forwarder. At this CTL side, both machines run on the same trail. Slash is crushed and nutrients are worked back into the forest floor.                                   

Foresters and owners generally do not mark trees to be thinned. That is left to the thinning operator’s discretion. He must choose a dominant tree to be saved, try to achieve a horizontal distribution balance, and still maintain the targeted number of trees per acre.                                   

A skilled harvester operator is mandatory to keep the number of scarred trees to a minimum. When the area is correctly thinned, remaining canopies have room to expand, sunlight dapples in, and the trees are more uniformly spaced. These remaining trees are expected to put on five percent growth a year, but when that rate is compounded, three years can yield 18 percent growth. Skilled management and harvesting will make an economic difference.                                   

Miller is the logger of the future. He’s an intelligent, aggressive risk-taker in a profession that has seen some serious bad times. He appreciates new machinery and embraces breakthroughs in European harvesting methods. At the same time, he hasn’t lost touch with the logging traditions of his family.