March April 2005




Winter in the Woods

Ponderay Valley Fibre finds more than wildlife benefits from habitat improvement.

Bob Bruce

Winter jobs are a premium and Ponderay Valley took on just such a project with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife with unique requirements and restrictions.

Sometimes, a timber purchase does not always have to show an immediate and strong profit on the balance sheet in order to yield a positive effect on the company’s long-term health and stability. Take as an example Ponderay Valley Fibre of Usk, Wash. Not too long ago it won the bids on a couple of timber sales put up by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Because of some unique requirements and restrictions, neither job was hugely profitable, according to Bernie Janoski, Forester for Ponderay Valley Fibre, but it still worked out to the company’s benefit.

Winter Work
"It was winter logging, and it’s always a premium to capture that winter and early spring wood," said Janoski. "Our mill is cutting 60 million board feet of lumber a year and you have to look at every opportunity that comes along. It was a bit of a reach [distance-wise from the mill to the job site], but we live in an area with a lot of federal lands and there hasn’t been much activity on federal lands here in the last few years. Every mill in our area has had to expand their working circle." That’s putting it mildly. The first job Ponderay bid on and won was outside of Ellensburg, Wash., a 246-mile haul each way from its mill in Usk.

Even Doug Kuehn, the Wildlife Forester with WDFW who put the bid together, was a little surprised that a mill from so far out of the area would be interested. "We weren’t sure if we’d even get any bids," said Kuehn. "Our goal was to just break even. In the bid we required them to remove the timber to a 5-inch top and the pulpwood to a 2- 1/2 inch top because we wanted to reduce the fuel so it wouldn’t burn so hot that we killed off all that we were leaving. I think they were only able to get about $20 per ton for the pulpwood, and we figured it cost around $28 per ton to get it cut and delivered."

Operators had to reprogram themselves for cutting specifications. They ended up sending ground crew ahead of marks trees.

Complicating Factors
Fortunately there wasn’t all that much pulpwood to contend with, but that was just one of the complicating factors in the job. The Ellensburg job was officially known as the Joe Watt Habitat Improvement 2003, located in the LT Murray Wildlife Area. Joe Watt is the name of the creek that runs through the 140-acre site, and the job was for an experimental thinning project for small-diameter trees to improve deer and elk winter range habitat. According to Kuehn, "Because people keep-ing expanding out into what used to be deer and elk winter range, we now have a 10-foot fence around Interstate 90 and the elk can’t cross I-90 to get to their traditional winter range. Rather than have them getting into people’s hay stacks and fruit orchards, we feed them between 400 and 500 tons of hay each winter."

At a cost of somewhere around $160 per ton, that’s an expense they’d like to avoid. The test area is only a small portion of the over 200,000 acres of wildlife area purchased from Murray Pacific around 1968. Logging continued up until about a dozen years ago, so most of the timber is small-diameter material that represents not only a burn hazard, but which also shades out most of the browse vegetation for the deer and elk.

What’s Best for the Habitat
To determine how best to restore the habitat, Kuehn divided the area into 20 seven-acre test plots and mandated a thinning program that would leave spacings of 25 by 25 feet (70 trees per acre), 30 by 30 feet (50 per acre), 35 by 35 feet (37 per acre), and 40 by 40 feet (27 per acre). The different densities would then be treated to a spring burn, a fall burn, or no burn at all, and the regrowth rates would be measured and compared. The overall goal was to bring back the ceanothus and other fire-dependent species that had largely disappeared due to fire suppression programs over the years. For Ponderay, it meant a lot more attention to detail both on the ground and in the cab.

Unless otherwise specified, the Ponderay crews were to leave the dominant and necessary co-dominant trees and maintain the average number of trees per acre for that spacing, leave all existing wildlife trees that had been left from past timber harvests, leave all damaged or diseased trees when their removal would create a void in the stand, and convert trees with scars or open wounds on the lower bowl to wildlife trees by cutting a high stump. At first, said Ponderay’s Janoski, they tried to leave all the decision-making to the equipment operators, but it impacted productivity too much. "We were using single grip harvesters with forward logging, and while we’ve been doing cut-to-length forwarder logging over here for quite a while, the operators had to reprogram themselves for the cutting specifications. They had to look past what they used to think of as a trash tree, for example mistletoe, and look at it on a wildlife basis and see the benefits for the wildlife."

They ended up sending ground crew ahead of the processors to mark which exact trees were to be cut. That brought the cutting back into schedule, but because the job window ran only from mid-November to mid-December, many of the deer and elk had already re-entered the area from their fall grazing range — and that in turn placed even more challenges on the crews.

Hanging Out with the Animals
"We had probably 150 head of mule deer and 400 head of elk in the area by the time we finished," said Janoski. "They didn’t seem to mind us though. In fact, they enjoyed the tops of the felled trees with the lichen in them, although the forwarders often had to wait for the deer to move away from the bucked logs before they could take them into the landing." Kuehn agreed that it was a learning experience for everyone involved. "I went out with the crews on the first day and I remember talking to one of the guys and saying ‘See that tree with the witch’s broom and mistletoe? I want you to leave me like six of these per acre.’ And he asked me ‘Why would you want to leave something that ugly?’ Just then two northern flying squirrels flew out of the clump and landed about 10 feet in front of us. He looked at me and said, ‘I haven’t seen a flying squirrel in 20 years.’ Well, that’s why we wanted to leave those things."

Deer and elk enjoyed the felled tree tops, to the point forwarders often had to wait for the deer to move to get bucked trees to the landing.

An Encore
Despite the challenges, Ponderay did such good job that when they finished the Joe Watt project, Kuehn encouraged them to bid on a second project of a similar nature in the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, about 25 miles outside of Omak, Wash. Called the Cope Habitat Improvement Timber Sale, this second job required the same care and attention to detail that had been needed to pull off the Joe Watt cut, but the big difference was, it was closer to the Ponderay mill and it netted out about 745,000 board feet of good usable Doug fir and pine. The pine made up only about 10 percent of the total, and Ponderay trucked that a short 22 miles to the Caulville tribal precision pine mill in Omak. The fir, except for a small percentage of oversize logs, all went to Ponderay’s mill in Usk. The Cope sale was designed specifically to improve mule deer winter range by reducing the density of Doug Fir that had invaded as a result of fire suppression (the last fire in the area happened in 1911).

The Forest Service was planning to do a prescribed burn on about 10,000 acres of land adjacent to the WDFW land, but before that happened Kuehn wanted to significantly reduce the fuel load on the wildlife land so things didn’t burn so hot that the dirt became sterilized. "Just like with Joe Watt, I required them to use a single grip feller-processor and then load directly onto a county road," said Kuehn. The timeframe for Cope was between December 15 and March 15, which meant that as soon as Ponderay finished in LT Murray, they packed up their equipment and moved it over to Sinlahekin. Kuehn also required removal of everything above 7 inches dbh up to a 4-inch top. That was perfect for Ponderay, since its mill will take to a 3- 1/2 inch top and 13-inch maximum diameter. In summary, said Janoski, "it was a pleasant experience working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. It’s good to see a government agency wanting to do something to benefit their land. You want to do the right thing out there and it just took a little time for the operators to understand the gist of the sale and what they were really trying to accomplish."


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This page was last updated on Tuesday, April 19, 2005