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Low-Impact Logging

Woodland Restoration focuses on non-industrial logging and restoring forest health

Bert Nilson pilots the Timberjack 1270 on a
thinning job near Missoula. The project was endorsed by the Forest Service, Society
of American Foresters
and Sierra Club.

By Barbara Coyner

Anyone familiar with forestry and fire behavior in the West knows the name Steve Arno. But forest restoration expert Matt Arno, doesn’t walk in the shadow of his famous fire ecologist father by any means. “You might say my dad is the theoretician, and we’re the practitioners,” says Matt, who operates Woodland Restoration Inc. with his brother, Nathan, and their business partner, Bert Nilson.

All three men got their forestry and conservation education at the University of Montana and their on-the-ground experience in the forests of western Montana. The company came together 15 years ago to promote a different style of forestry for smaller non-industrial forest owners in the Inland Northwest.

“This company is not about logging, but about low-impact logging,” Matt says. “I learned forestry principles early from my father. Fire behavior is tied to ecology, so I grew up with forest ecology. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to learn forest restoration from there.”

An unlikely business combination, logger Matt Arno (left) and outdoor writer and tree-hugger Peter Stark, have started a value-added business marketing larch products. The high-end floors, trims and picture frames are manufactured from small-diameter logs.

Leaving Forest in Better Condition
Arno knows there’s a place for industrial logging, but Woodland Restoration has carved out a niche that many small private landowners prefer. In fact, 95 percent of the company’s clients are in that category.

“Private landowners recognize the value in low-impact techniques,” says Matt, whose attention to careful fuels reduction and habitat enhancement has won national recognition. “We’re not just about sustainability. We want to leave the forest in better condition. That means we are often leaving more value than we are taking. The beauty for the landowners is that the value is still there.”

Stark Realization
One person who knows Matt’s philosophy firsthand is Peter Stark, a client who eventually joined him in another partnership, North Slope Sustainable Wood, which markets larch floors, trims, and picture frames. Stark watched Matt in action and took the low-impact logging concept to the value-added dimension. Now, North Slope floors and trims are in such prestigious places as the Montana Governor’s Mansion and the 2007 Seattle Street of Dreams Tamarack Home.

“I was a tree hugging eco-liberal who didn’t want to take a single branch off the property,” says Stark, who bought his Missoula forestlands in the 1980s. “They offered some forest stewardship courses locally so I went, and when we went out to my property, I was surprised to learn that this forest was really unhealthy. I wondered if we could restore this forest.”

For Matt, Stark represented the chance to educate as well as practice his trade. And because Stark needed to have some of the forest restoration pay its way, Matt considered how to add value to Stark’s logs.

The budding eco-capitalist learned to take core samples, crunch numbers, and grit his teeth at the thought of whining chainsaws. Matt knew the drill. He had already met other landowners with the same set of values, dreams, and expectations. Matt and his team hauled their cut-to-length equipment out to Sawmill Gulch as Stark stood watch.

Moving the Small Stuff
“You can’t cut enough by hand, so you need the technology,” says Matt. “To move small material, you have to go mechanical.” Matt, Nathan, and Nilson are far from idealists on this point, and as trained foresters, they not only assess what needs to be done, they get in the cab and do it.

“We do a lot with a small log loader, and we don’t push any slash,” Matt explains of the light touch approach that keeps soil compaction to a minimum. “Everything is piled by grapple. It’s easier on the ground.”

Using mostly a Timberjack 1270 harvester and a 1210B Timberjack forwarder, Woodland Restoration maintains a stable of tried and true machines that works well for sensitive logging techniques.

“We bought them used in 2006 when my brother Nathan became a partner in Woodland Restoration [Nathan previously ran his own small business, Firewise Forest Landscaping]. It worked out very well for us because we got a wheeled harvester with operator, an eight-wheeled forwarder, and another forester. We also got a good partner,” says Matt.

He adds, “We also have a 1270 Timberjack Harvester we turned into a chipper, another 1270 as a backup machine, and a Valmet 840 Forwarder as a backup machine.”

Rubber Tires & Chippers
The men are die-hards about rubber tires, agreeing that track machines can be used successfully, but rubber tires suit their needs better.

“We like the 1270 harvesters because there were a lot of them made, and they are wheeled,” Matt says “We made a deliberate decision to go wheeled. If a track machine is used correctly, it is fine. But we can go even more low-impact with rubber tires.”

Woodland Restoration often adds chipping to its services, and Matt says that aspect is both efficient and popular with private landowners.

“We mostly use our chippers to chip pre-commercial tree limbs and tops, and our clients really like this because it is quick, clean, and efficient. When prices for hog fuel are high enough, we sell the chips. Our machines are also used without the chippers to pile slash in the woods if we are piling and burning.”

Although the Timberjacks fit the bill most of the time, the company brings in an “excaliner” for harvesting more sensitive and steeper slopes. The modified excavator-turned-line-machine runs on tracks for maneuverability, with the double-cable system pulling trees either up or down, depending on need. Arno likes the light touch and flexibility of the adapted skyline system.

Sensitive Areas
Another subcontractor who often works with Matt is Brook Blakeley, owner of Montana Forest Stewardship Services. Blakeley synchronizes with Woodland Restoration, carefully piling limbs and occasionally chipping residual wood, using a 9030 New Holland farm tractor.

The New Holland can switch off between chipper, log grapple, and Farmi winch attachments. Although chipping isn’t done at all sites, when it is, a Brush Bandit can process logging debris into a waiting van. In other instances, residual material is left on the forest floor in small, scattered piles and ignited in a fashion that mimics a natural low-intensity fire.

“This is the second one [New Holland] I’ve owned,” says Blakeley. “It’s the best multi-purpose machine for our jobs, and it does especially well when we have to work around residences. With the winch, we can lift logs out of ravines or away from houses.”

Strong Support from Stark
Logging activities are now a more routine aspect of Peter Stark’s life, and he has used his profession as a nationally known outdoor and adventure writer to get the word out that not all logging is bad. His seminal piece on the subject, “The Tree Slayer,” published in Outside Magazine in 2005, even pokes fun at his earlier attitudes.

Stark’s once unhealthy stands are now invigorated, making a convincing case for Woodland Restoration’s sensitive approach.

Thinning Needed
For Woodland Restoration’s Bert Nilson, who grew up in the state’s eastside cattle country, the logging work on the west side’s forests can’t come too soon. Images of the fires in 2000 still loom large in Montana’s collective mind, and Nilson says nature isn’t managing the forests well because of previous manmade mistakes.

“We can’t just walk away now,” he adds, noting that bugs and wildfire aren’t nature’s best cure for the land.

Nilson is concerned over the reduction in wood products infrastructure. As mills close and loggers find other work, the means to accomplish forest health measures evaporate as well.
“We need to keep that infrastructure for the years ahead,” he says. “It’s now or never. We have to keep the infrastructure there for forest health.”