July Aug, 2003






Helicopter Logging’s Bumpy Ride

Using helicopters to thin forests instead of fighting fires

By Bob Bruce

Helicopter logging, or helilogging, is a technology that fills an important niche in the forest products industry. It provides an environmentally-sensible way to remove trees with minimal impact while at the same time bringing to market previously un-harvestable timber.

Arrival in the 70’s In the early 1970s, the growing environmental movement combined with heavy-lifting helicopters developed for the military in Vietnam, made helilogging an attractive and practical alternative. Today, the Helicopter Association International estimates there are nearly 175 forestry or logging companies worldwide that use helicopters as a significant or primary means of removing timber from the forest. Because of the unique capabilities of helicopter logging rigs, virtually all helilogging operations focus on areas unreachable by conventional ground access means because of extreme slope, environmental sensitivity, or simply their remoteness from roads. The only real drawback — as heliloggers themselves admit — is the cost. When you figure in equipment costs, maintenance, flight crew, ground support crew, etc., it’s not beyond reason to peg the helicopter portion at around $5,000 per hour, with the overall cost of helilogging at from 20 to 30 percent higher than traditional ground-based logging.

Working at Echo Cove, near Juneau in Southeastern Alaska, a Boeing Vertol 107-II delivers timber to a barge anchored in the center of the cove.To prevent catastrophic spills in such a pristine environment, the hydraulic fluid on the equipment on the barges was replaced with environmentally friendly canola based oil. Fully laden barges were towed to regional mills.

Columbia Takes Off
One of the first companies to get into helilogging was Columbia Helicopters, home-based at the Aurora Airport in Aurora, Ore. Columbia was founded in 1957 by Wes Lematta. After Wes was mustered out of service from WWII, he used the GI Bill to go to flight school and get his helicopter flight certification. Then with his brother Eddie, he bought a used Hiller 12B — a 1950s era 2-seater widely used by the Army and Navy as a trainer. Columbia started out selling helicopter rides at county fairs, but in just two years were able to add two more ‘copters to their fleet as well as pick up a contract to lift and place power poles over the rugged terrain of rural Oregon. The job required both precision and safety, so Wes developed a pilot-side bubble that allowed the pilot to essentially lean out over the side of the helicopter to get a more direct view of the attachment line and the target zone. The improvement worked so well that it became a standard feature on virtually all helicopters used for long-line pickup and placement jobs. When the heavy-lift Sikorsky S-58 (the Army Choctaw) and the more powerful S-61 (the Navy Sea King) became available in the late 1960s, Columbia was poised and ready to enter the helilogging business.

Columbia Helicopters’ hooker Moises Lorenzo hooks logs to a Boeing Vertol 107-II helicopter.

Ups and Downs Over the Decades
Max Merlich, VP of Logging Operations, has been with Columbia since 1976 and has seen changes in the industry up close. “The market was good back in 1976,” said Merlich. “The environmental movement was gaining strength and that drove the logging industry to find a more environmentally-sensitive way to do business.” In the decades since, logging on public lands has taken a serious nosedive due to what some might call overzealous environmental restrictions. Today, loggers say that the selective thinning made possible by helilogging is vital in order to pull timber from remote stands without having to build access roads. But environmentalists are upset precisely because helilogging can reach into areas previously too difficult and uneconomical to log.

A Boeing Vertol 107-II delivers a log to a landing.

The Necessity of Thinning
Merlich sees a certain contradiction of logic to the argument: “There is a tremendous amount of thinning that absolutely needs to be done if we are to maintain forest health. People in rural areas understand that, but those in urban areas don’t seem to get it. In the Suislaw National Forest alone, for example, there’s 350 to 400 million board feet of growth each year. We’d have to thin 5 to 10,000 acres each year just to keep up.” All over the Pacific Northwest public forestlands are becoming too thick for their own good. While a lushly overgrown forest may be fun to hike through, if you take a few years of summer drought conditions and mix in a couple of good electrical storms, the result is likely to be a raging inferno that gets out of hand way too quickly. That’s something the members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona know all too well.

Last year’s Rodeo/Chediski fire consumed close to 467,000 acres, much of it on tribal land. That same year saw the Biscuit Fire in Southern Oregon, which burned about 500,000 acres. Either one might have been slowed or minimized had there been an active thinning program in place. But now that they’ve happened, the next big public policy challenge according to Merlich is to clear the way for salvage efforts before the firedamaged timber becomes completely unmarketable. “According to a fellow from OSU,” said Merlich, “there is 4.2 billion board feet of salvageable wood at the Biscuit Fire burn, with 2.2 billion board feet within two miles of a road. That’s a lot of wood. The problem is they have just one or two years to get it out and they haven’t done anything so far except wring their hands and worry about it.” The situation is a bit better at the Arizona burn, but challenges remain because of the size of the salvage area, the fact that it has involved winter operation, and because most of the logs have to be trucked to sawmills in California. Even so, said Merlich, “Fire salvage and bug kill are traditionally areas where heliloggers have been able to perform well and make some money, because they are situations where you are under time constraints to move a lot of wood.”

High and Low-Tech Operation
Working a job like the Rodeo/Chediski salvage requires a sizeable crew and some intense coordination. Columbia has five helicopters on the job with their flight and support crews, a fully-stocked parts and repair depot, an overall manager, a forest engineer, five siderods, and bullbucks under them. It’s a five-sided operation and all personnel keep in touch with FM radios, cell phones, and a satellite Internet link at the service landing. Despite the cell phones and laptops, Merlich wouldn’t characterize the operation as particularly high-tech. “Our equipment is very well maintained, but ‘copters are all old technology. You can’t afford to just buy a new helicopter; you have to modify older equipment. And while there is some potential for using mechanical equipment on the end of the cable . . . a certain part of logging is always going to require manpower. On a steep hillside you still have to have somebody go up and cut the trees; there’s no other way to do it.” Columbia rounds out its ground fleet with equipment from Komatsu and Cat. Their primary loader is a Komatsu PC300HD, and they also run Komatsu 270s, 380s and 450s. They also have a couple of Cat 330 shovels as well as Cat 966s and 980s. “We run the machines a long time,” said Merlich, “maybe 15 to 20,000 hours, but we maintain them very well. There’s never going to be a better loader than the Cat 966C, but the problem anymore is you can’t get landings big enough to run them on so we’ve had to go more to shovels and that more than doubles your cost.”

Logging Over Burns
Overall, Columbia has remained successful even in the face of industry rough spots, by building a tightly-organized structure where nearly every aspect of helilogging is taken care of in-house. “Everyone in the industry is struggling to make a living today,” said Merlich. “We have seen some bankruptcies, some consolidations, but we are optimistic about the future because we think there are political changes afoot. The number one problem is lack of work due to the market and the failure of government to salvage fire and bug kill. Columbia put a lot of time and money into getting Bush elected and we are trying to get this Bush Healthy Forest Initiative rammed through so we can get to work and get the job done.” In the meantime, until thinning and salvage activity picks up to a level where Merlich and many others feel it should be, firefighting work is (unfortunately) a growth industry. “Firefighting has been strong for the last three years,” said Merlich, “and it is very lucrative.” He admitted, though, that he would rather be logging timber before it burned, rather than after. TW

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This page was last updated on Tuesday, September 28, 2004