March April 2005




Old Ways, New Iron

St. Maries Logging, Inc. maintains half a dozen sides with the best equipment

By Kurt Glaeseman

Joe Epler, Logging Manager for St. Maries Logging, Inc., may claim heís an old-fashioned, traditional logger, but the ease with which he deploys a half-dozen sides and a fleet of modern machinery could make the most modern CEO jealous. Epler was born and raised in St. Maries, a railroad and lumber town south of Coeur díAlene, Idaho. For many years his dad was a partner with Jim Beal, who still owns the company. Joe was a natural for a managerial position, for he brought with him a thorough knowledge of the local logging area, an understanding of how the company functioned, and a commitment to the traditional hard-work ethic modeled by parents who had weathered the Depression.

Logging Manager Joe Epler (lighter shirt) talks over the dayís progress with operator Kenny Mitchell.

Valmet Harvesting Heads
The machinery Epler deploys, however, is anything but traditional. Not only does he manage a whole fleet of Valmet harvesting heads, his Model 395 is one of the few that can be observed working in North America. This 395 is the biggest head Valmet makes, and Epler is loud in its praise. He knows what he is talking about, since he can compare it on a daily basis with the smaller Valmet heads. He is a specialist in figuring out which model is the most productive for specific purposes. So far the versatile Valmet heads can handle any job that the harvest plans require. Several factors led to this choice of machinery. Along the Pacific coast, the redwoods and pines tend to grow cylindrical trunks, with very little taper.

But here in the intermountain region of Idaho, the targeted species have a definite taper, so there is a small log in every big log. If you are going to be profitable, you have to utilize that small four-to-eight-inch log. Because the terrain is so steep, there often isnít enough space to operate a stroke delimber. It was a natural to experiment with Valmetís dangle-style heads. And even the big 395 can save small wood, right down to three inches.

Rene van der Merwe, Valmet Product Manager at Modern Machinery, walks toward a warm-up fire.

Standards, Machinery & Operators
Currently several sides are working on former Diamond International land that was logged 20 years ago. The plan is to encourage new growth of Douglas fir and western larch. A high percentage of the harvested trees are grand fir and western red cedar, but a clean sort is imperative. Cedar over eight inches goes to Potlatch in Lewiston, but that under eight inches stays in St. Maries. Big fir logs are separated from those under 20 inches. There is a separate sort for peeler poles and for pulp wood. Eplerís job is to coordinate these exacting standards with appropriate machinery and competent operators. In its third season, the 395 head on a 330 Cat carrier has about 6000 hours. It has the standard 84-inch open arm width, the floating front/tip knife, the four delimbing arms, and the Dasa 380CX control and measuring system. Epler, who runs three dangle heads and leases three stroke-delimbers, claims the 395 is the most productive and has the least downtime. "The beauty of the big head," he says, "is that it can handle the big wood and not miss a beat with the small stuff, right down to a 4-inch top. Itís gentle enough to run poles without damage below the cambium layer."

Operator Scott Brown operates the Valmet 965 processing head.

Operator Kenny Mitchell, a 12-year employee, likes the way the head "eats the wood" and still remains maneuverable. He also loads with it, and is pleased with its overall dependability. "It took a few weeks for me to be comfortable with the computer," he says, "and to figure out when to make necessary changes to the grab arms. But Iím still surprised that we can do all of this in a steep area that most folks would want to log with a helicopter." Epler does a lot of work on private land that requires thinning, so the cutto- length process is getting more popular. "Weíve got the machinery to do it," he asserts, "But there are still a lot of folks who have to learn about the advantages. One of the biggest selling points is the aestheticsóhow it looks when the job is finished. We know about putting the nutrients back into the land and about working on a slash mat to avoid degrading or exposing the soil. But the visual aspect is very important. Potential clients should see a tract when it is thinned and then two or three years later. We have to do a better job of getting the word out."

Operator T.J. Grieser, grandson of St. Maries Logging Company owner Jim Beal.

Finding Future Operators
Suddenly the traditional logging Epler comes to the surface: "Our biggest problem is the lack of qualified operators. There is no longer a labor pool for the logging industry. Mill closures have diverted young folks elsewhere. Itís a big problem finding qualified workersÖor even those who will show up to work." Epler likes having ing versatile operators who can be switched from the processor to the forwarder to any other position. That why heís so pleased with Mitchell: "Kenny was a natural. When he got out of high school, I put him on a D8 on roadwork. He caught on fast. I put him on a processor and he took to it like a duck to water."

Valmet 395 dangle-head in action.

But Epler is also aware that there is a high cost associated with training an operator. They may not ever really take to it, or they may be good and then get hired away by another company. Epler considers himself an oldtimer with the company. He has pretty much experienced all the jobs with St. Maries Logging: "At 16 I started throwing rocks on the road, then worked my way to mechanic and cat skinner. Iíve hooked and Iíve loaded. By doing all the jobs, you understand everyoneís problems. Now I feel like Iíve been there!" Loyalty to the company is a big deal with Epler. He remembers how closely his own dad worked with Jim Beal, and he has the same commitment. But he claims his work ethic started earlier than that. As a child he loved staying on the farm with his grandparents, and he accepted and easily fell into the havrhythm of work done on a methodical schedule.

It wasnít always pleasant getting up to do the milking, but there was a reward of good cream and butter. Butchering was hard work, but he liked the idea that family and friends got together, made it go quickly, and shared the ham and sausage. Epler is pleased that his two grown kids are college-educated. His daughter is a psychologist, and his son, who worked in the woods with him as a skidder operator, has a degree in engineering. "Iíve always encouraged my kids to get an education," he says. "They should go out and see the world. Then, if they choose, they can always come back." Epler himself does not spend all his time in the woods. He and his wife like to fly their Cessna to the coast for dinner or to Branson for a good show. But for him, coming back to St. Maries is never an issue.

Epler is comfortable bridging the gap between the traditional and the modern. He can reminisce about the old days, but he sits on a Forestry Planning Board whose main objective is to improve local forest health and avoid catastrophic fires. If that involves the intelligent use of dangle heads and the cut-to-length process, heís right in there pitching. But he is a little wry in keeping manís newest, most modern efforts in perspective: "Management? Yeah, we do the best we can. But we can always be overruled. Mother Nature can be harsher and more determined than any man and any manís management plan!"


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This page was last updated on Wednesday, April 20, 2005