Thinning Down Wildfires
Wildland Fire Fuels
Treatment Trials At Idaho City
By Barbara Coyner
now in the western U.S. there are some 70 million acres of forests that need
thinning to reduce wildfire hazards. Tree densities are frequently ten times
what they need to be, and thinning could take years. In addition, mills are no
longer in business in many areas, raising the question, what can be done with
all the biomass as it is thinned? And if there’s no product to offset the costs,
who will pay for it? The Dry Forest Mechanized Fuels Treatment Trials held this
Spring in Washington, Oregon and Idaho were an attempt to find some answers to
those questions before fires like those in Arizona and Colorado make the
questions moot. The two-day Idaho trial was held in Idaho City, a historic
mining area an hour south of Boise, and funded by the National Fire Plan.
Philomath, Oregon, logger Keith Coulter, Tad Mason, a consulting forester from
California, and the Idaho City Ranger District coordinated the event. Their goal
was to bring together logging contractors, rural development specialists and
agency personnel to brainstorm.
The Economizer portable
sawmill chips and saws dimensional lumber with ease.
Trying Out Answers
"This is purely a research project," says Idaho City District Ranger Dick
Markley. "We wanted logging contractors here so they can see how the equipment
performs, gain a better level of understanding and maybe bid on the project."
"We’re in an arena we haven’t dealt with before," says Leonard Roeber, Markley’s
forestry tech. "We have acres and acres of small-diameter stuff that’s
underutilized. Surely there’s a widget out there we can use, either a process or
a product, something to utilize the product." Many other attendees were sharing
the same thought. The event attracted 170 people, with 31 of them representing
15 logging firms. They witnessed a totally different kind of logging show — one
tilted toward mulching and chipping rather than harvesting and featuring five
very different thinning alternatives.
Feller-buncher & Chipper
At one trial, a Timbco T-425 worked the terrain in tandem with a grapple
skidder, which hauled trees to a Bandit Tracked Whole Tree Chipper. Forest
Service workers unfamiliar with fell-buncher technology watched the Timbco
negotiate the slopes efficiently. The Bandit, a mobile chipper in the
30,000-pound class, featured a self-loading grapple and also showed off its
flexi-bility in moving around in tight places, all the while exerting a light
footprint on the ground. It made quick work of whole trees, scattering them on
the forest floor as mulch.
The Nordstrom Mechanical
Brush cutter reduces standing trees to large chunks
Brush Cutter & Excavator
A Slashbuster brush cutter put on a lively show with its mastication head,
shaving standing trees into rough chunks. The brush cutter attachment was
mounted on a 20 metric ton excavator and featured a hydraulically powered
material handler, that can rotate 90 degrees. "This Slashbuster attachment has
3800 hours on it yet has required no maintenance other than grease and teeth"
said Paul Milbourn, whose father developed the machine. "Silviculturalists are
discovering that the coarse woody debris that is left behind plays an important
role in the forest’s long-term sustainability" A Nordstrom Mechanical Brush
Cutter was also performing at the show. Its brush cutter attachment was mounted
on a Cat 322BLL Excavator that featured a hydraulically powered thumb, which can
rotate 270 degrees. "The surface of the wheel is cutting at all times," said
Dick Nordstrom, who developed the machine. "And the hydraulic thumb adds
capacity to pick up trees of all sizes." A BLM fuels management specialist
pointed out that the machines could do a variety of tasks such as removing
trees, chipping and creating habitat trees. The machine also went easy on the
duff layer and soil compaction.
Fecon & Bull Hog Team
Also in the lineup was a Fecon RT-400 Steel-Tracked Carrier with a Bull Hog BH
250 Mulching Head. The piece, trucked from the Midwest, was attractive because
of its flexibility to mount the cutter head on a variety of pieces of equipment.
Demonstrator, Mike Slattery, said the cutting teeth usually last 300 hours, but
some users get up to 500 hours per set, depending on materials being cut. "It
takes 10 minutes to change a tool and there’s a minimum of unplanned down time,"
he said. "We’re big on reputation in the fuels treatment industry and we use
different standards to meet customer needs."
The Kaiser Spyder All-Terrain Walking Excavator mounted with a mastication head
resembled an outer space vehicle and wowed the attendees with its ability to
negotiate extremely steep slopes. According to operator Carl Liebelt, the
rubber-tired four-wheel-drive unit can routinely work 70 to 80 percent slopes
and can also work in water. The Kaiser has already found a niche with utility
companies, and also does its share of streamside restoration projects. Its
flexibility and mastication head made it highly maneuverable at the trials.
Carl Liebelt takes a
break from the controls of the Kaiser Spyder
Also demonstrating was the ranger district’s own piece of equipment, a
Clearwater Cable Yarder with Christy Carriage. Mounted on a converted military
truck, the 25- foot tower has a skyline drum capacity of 800 feet of halfinch
line and mainline drum capacity of 900 feet of 3/8-inch line. Markley said the
yarder is used to log firewood, which is sold locally.
Markley admitted that his dream sheet would be to find a way to turn the
abundant wood waste into electrical power or something similar. He brought in
four portable sawmills to demonstrate further alternatives — a Brand X (a new
mill from Condon, Montana), a Wood-Mizer, a Lucas and an Economizer, each
showing milling possibilities in the absence of an industrial sawmill.
Noticeably absent was any cut-to-length system. Mason said the cut-to-length
technology wasn’t a good fit in this instance. With few sawlogs coming from the
Idaho City trials, the pre-determined emphasis was on chipping and recycling
biomass. "I’m really biased toward production machines," said Mason. "But
there’s also a place for smaller machines in sensitive habitats and residential
areas. This is purely a research project and a technology transfer opportunity."
Rural Development Angles
Along with the equipment tour, was an army of policy makers and rural
development personnel, each offering ideas and observations about the complex
web of forest management. The quote of the day belonged to Mark Nechodom, a
Forest Service researcher in social and policy sciences, who said, "It sometimes
appears that the Forest Service is presiding over a sort of hospice program here
in the West." He felt strongly that mechanized technology was the only way to
address massive thinning needs across the West. "A couple of things are
increasingly clear," said Nechodom. "While we’re busy figuring out what matters,
the forests continue to grow in trajectories most of us don’t like, and those
who know how to manage and do things in forests are going broke, leaving in
despair, or stewing in unhealthy frustration as the forest management
infrastructure collapses around them. We have a lot to do to negotiate a
collective vision for the next chapter of forest management."
Han-Sup Han, a timber harvesting and forest engineering specialist from the
University of Idaho, discussed the issues with leaving huge amounts of biomass
on the forest floor. "You have the same problems in Arizona, Colorado and New
Mexico. There is no industry left, yet you have huge amounts of material coming
out of the forest. What do we do with it? That’s the big dilemma, so we’re
trying to pool information and see what’s available so we can share it with
policy makers. We need to include all the stakeholders interested in solving the
puzzle from stump to product." With the trials now complete, event coordinators
Mason and Coulter will take the information they’ve collected and start
crunching numbers. They believe the facts and figures gathered will furnish them
with basic information that will help them predict some of the economics of the
West’s overwhelming dry forest fuels reduction needs. With luck, the answers
will come in before the fires.
service is temporarily unavailable