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Horse Power

Nova Scotia logger James Drescher harvests his woodlot using horses and passes on his unique forest management approach to students at Windhorse Farm.
By Stephen Bornais


Working in a forest that has seen 159 consecutive years of harvesting involving virtually the same selection logging methods, James Drescher considers the “experiment” on his woodlot well started. Drescher’s experiment involves finding a balance between the forest as a wild ecosystem and its ability to consistently provide employment and valuable products. Observers shouldn’t be in a hurry to draw conclusions, he says, since it could take a while. “That period of years is not long enough to determine that this is sustainable forestry. It’s just a blink in the life of a forest, so we would have to continue to do this for another 1,000 years or so before we could really say anything about sustainability,” he says. Drescher’s Windhorse Farm is in the LaHave River watershed on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, a geography that includes drumlins, steep hillsides, and valley bottomland.

The 144-acre farm is 85 per cent forested, with all-aged mixed forests that have never been clearcut. It is managed, along with 150 acres of adjacent forestland, according to principles developed by the Wentzell family 150 years ago. The farm began when Conrad Wentzell, a descendant of an 18th century German immigrant, arrived and “cut a hole in the forest”. Over the next five generations, logging was done almost every year, yet the standing volume of timber remained stable. Trees were selected for harvest either individually or in patches of two to six dominant trees. The result of this forestry program to date is a very healthy, diverse woodlot with trees of all ages including very old and large hemlock, pine, maple, birch, spruce, beech, ash, and oak. Drescher, originally from Wisconsin, attended the University of Wisconsin and the University of Washington, graduating with a Masters Degree in Ecology.

He worked in forestry in both states before coming to Nova Scotia in 1979. In 1990, Drescher bought the property from Carroll and Marion Wentzell and, despite many conversations with them, was unable to determine why the land was managed in this particular way. “The response was simply that it was done this way because that was the right way to do it.” Drescher also has a modest milling operation and cuts between 180,000 and 200,000 board feet of lumber per year, a tiny amount he admits. “We saw less in a year than the big companies saw in a single shift,” he says. He estimates the annual growth increment of the original

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James Drescher, who runs his own woodlot in Nova Scotia and teaches classes through the Ecoforestry School of the Maritimes, holds some unconventional views on forest management. The 159 years of selection logging his woodlot has seen is not a sufficient time to determine what is sustainable forestry, he says. “It’s just a blink in the life of a forest, so we would have to continue to do this for another 1,000 years or so before we could really say anything about sustainability.” Nova Scotia logger James Drescher harvests his woodlot using horses and passes on his unique forest management approach to students at Windhorse Farm.


Wentzell woodlot is about 100,000 board feet per year, but thinks it is “prudent” to limit his annual allowable cut to 60,000 board feet per year. “A lot of people think you can use the annual growth increment as your annual allowable cut, but you’re going to severely deplete the land if you do,” he says. Drescher marks all trees to be cut, avoiding under-represented species in the stand and those with an ecological value exceeding their economic value. At the start of each cutting season, Drescher marks trees in one of four ways: leave it alone, harvest it, girdle it or prune it. Each decision carries its own costs and benefits. Under Drescher’s “accounting system”, the benefits of leaving a tree untouched include providing shade and breaking the rainfall, providing vertical structure and habi tat and reducing wind impact. And of course no time and effort are expended since no harvesting takes place. On the cost side, however, the tree is not immediately convertible to cash and it may compete with other trees for light, nutrients or water.

Deciding which tree to cut is not a trivial matter for Drescher. “But we carefully select and understand that cutting that tree will provide the economic viability that we require to continue to live here and do this type of work,” he said. Trees are harvested according to a slow grading system. “We cut the slowest growing trees regardless of their size with the exception that we never cut the tallest tree regardless of its growth rate,” he said. “That is a full-cycle tree and it will stay there until it either dies and falls down, or until an adjacent tree gets taller than it is.” Leaving the tallest trees is one of the key elements to Drescher’s woodlot sustainability. Drescher also buys logs from other woodlots he considers well-managed.

To move toward sustainability, he promotes ecological diversity, including species, age and size diversity, as well as genetic and structural diversity (the distribution of biomass). Of the four, structural diversity is what he terms the “most diagnostic” of the group. Drescher says the two most important parameters of structural diversity are canopy height and deadwood. “Virtually all of the plants and animals live within this layer of forest. The taller the canopy is, the thicker that layer of forest, the more structural diversity you have, the more ecological diversity you have, the more stability you have,” he says. “Sustainability is directly dependent on canopy height.” He believes the importance of canopy height lies in the fact these trees may be genetically taller and are a preferable seed source for the next generation.

They block sun from lower trees, providing incentive for them to grow to the light, and afford wind protection for the growing tips of lower trees. It’s not a concept widely accepted or understood, and certainly not one taught in forestry schools, he says. But when it is introduced at the classes he teaches, people—including forestry students and other woodlot owners—“seem to get it right away”. Once the cutting decisions have been made, Drescher and his team wait until the ground is frozen and covered with ice and snow. This makes it easier for the pair of Belgian draft horses—Bob and Ted—to haul logs over the sawdust and slabwood roads to the yards scattered throughout the woodlot.


The roads sit on top of the ground so as to allow a continuity of the microbial soil life, while the wood waste holds the frost better and does not introduce foreign material into the forest. The Wentzells had used horse logging, a practice Drescher wanted to continue rather than go with machinery when he took over the woodlot, citing reduced capital costs, limited harvesting damage and personal enjoyment as his reasons. But some observers question the eco-nomics of the decision, provoking Drescher to devise a test to determine if his heart matched his head. He matched two men and a horse against two men equipped with a tractor and winch over a two-month period in 1997. “The team of two men with a horse could consistently outperform the two men with tractor and winch about two-to-one on a short haul,” he says. Drescher had some experience farming with horses in Washington but none as a logger.

Before he started, he located a horse logger in the area, got a team of his own, and over three years of apprenticeship, learned how to work with the animals and harvest timber from his woodlot. Now Winter Horselogging is just one of the courses taught at Windhorse Farm to students who come from across Canada, many of them in their 20s. Some are just curious, while others want to become contract horse loggers themselves. Lessons being learned at Windhorse are passed along through the on-site school, the Ecoforesty School of the Maritimes, which offers courses such as horse logging, ecoforestry management planning and long-term selection harvesting. Drescher says the school is run as a break-even operation. Drescher and his employees spend the spring and summer sawing lumber, using a four-year-old mobile Enercraft Silvasaw owned by one of the employees.

He said the Canadian-built saw is an “excellent machine” that does everything they need. The lumber is taken from the woodlot in either horse- or tractor-drawn wagons to be air-dried in the drying yards or kiln-dried in the wood-fired dehumidification kiln. As part of the farm effort to maximize dollar-to-biomass ratios, a variety of products are manufactured in a woodworking shop. Retail products sold from the shop include flooring, wainscoting, mouldings, cabinets and furniture, as well as a certain amount of construction lumber. Customers include local contractors and homeowners, furniture and cabinet mak-ers and boat builders. Because the ecoforestry activity at Windhorse is so labour intensive, it supports five families.

Drescher said some view this as a negative, but he feels the opposite. “The money goes back to the people who did the work, not to an owner or shareholder who socks it away in Germany or Bermuda,” he said. Many logging companies in the region have dismissed Windhorse as an unrealistic hobby model, whose practices have little to do with the real world. Drescher, needless to say, insists it is an economic and forestry management model that can be successfully applied elsewhere. “This is not a throw-back to the past. This is the way of the future,” he says. In a way, Windhorse represents two things, an archive project of the forest that once was and a possible model for the future. Drescher thinks the Windhorse Farm experiment will gradually take hold elsewhere in the years to come but not until forestry in Nova Scotia “hits the wall”, a collapse he expects within the next 10 years. “After the fall, people will look around and say ‘whoa, that industrial model didn’t work. I wonder what will’.


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