May and June 2006



A Transition to Thinning

Tower Timber Services Inc., turns to thinning for better returns

By Jeff Mullins

Curt Johnson II, a fifth-generation logger, oversees his crew's thinning operation perched on a Komatsu 300 shovel loader. The Thunderbird 6140 swing yarder's suspended carriage disappears into tall timber as much as 2,000 feet away. A chaser brands and paints log ends before scurrying to disconnect chokers.

Tower Timber, well known for its clear-cut harvesting, is turning to thinning and its higher margins.

Curt deftly positions select logs on the shoulder for the chaser to limb, measure and trim. Others logs are swung to the shovel's opposite side for a second chaser to process, while bucked and limbed logs are decked. At the same time, the Prentice 610 rubbertired shovel cleans up debris, shuffles the deck away from the yarder and loads trucks as they arrive.

Curt's father, Curtis Senior, surveys the work from his vantage point on the ground serving as the crew's “flexman.” He strings cable, run loaders or whatever is needed to keep things flowing smoothly.

In the distance, chain saws whine as they bring down the next day's work. And the hook tender strings lengths of haywire down the next ribbon-marked corridor.

Tower Timber, owned by Curt and his brother Travis, was known for its clear-cut harvesting, using large towers like its 100-foot Berger, a 071 Madill slack line and a PSY 200 Thunderbird. Now, those machines stand idle, along with hefty support equipment like 5800 LinkBelt and 6630 Kieong shovels, as the era of big tower clear-cut operations on federal lands has drawn to a close. Clear-cuts are still common on private timberlands, but bidding competition and minimal profit margins have led the brothers to shift into thinning on government lands. The requirements for harvesting BLM and Forest Service lands are stringent, but Curt says, "There seems to be plenty of work for those who are willing to be detail-oriented." The brothers are already realizing results good enough to be seriously considering selling their big towers.

Curtis Johnson says that logging hasn't changed much since his grandfather logged with horses “trees are cut and they delivered to the mill”. But the technology definitely has.

Tower's exposure to thinning operations first occurred while working for Glide Lumber Tree Source. Both Curt and his father credit the coaching of Stan Martindale and Cyrus Stanley for helping them transition into thinning operations without going broke. Curt says, “Thinning is a whole different operation.”

Prior to thinning operations on BLM lands, foresters mark each tree that is to be left. Harvest corridors, not to exceed 15 feet wide, must be established by the contractor and each “leave tree” taken from the corridor must be segregated and each stump marked. On the Bear Track Ridge unit, trees approximately 80 years old are being thinned to leave about 65 trees per acre. Operations are conducted from established roads and there are no real landings. Tight quarters require smaller machines and smaller decks. A high mobility loader like Tower's rubber-tired Prentice is required for shuffling decks away from the hub of operations and to quickly load trucks from the small scattered decks along the road's edge.

Thinning services are paid on a "perthousand basis," so everyone on the 10 man crew must hustle to keep up production. Curt estimates the average production is two to three loads a day on thinning jobs where small trees are involved, but up to six loads may be realized when dealing with bigger stems.

Although thinning output is much less than from clear-cut operations, it can be cost-effective because higher rates are paid per thousand.

Curtis Senior contends that even though his great grandfather logged with horses, "logging has never changed - trees are cut and they are delivered to the mill. Technology changes, but the process never has.” Seeing technology as a “means to an end” has allowed Tower Timber to modify its operation and remain competitive in an ever-changing harvesting environment.

Curt Johnson II on the Komatsu 300 shovel. Tower Timber was named Oregon’s Southwest Operator of the Year in 2005.

Tower's venture into thinning work also arose from a balanced concern for the environment, public perception, productivity and profitability in harvesting timber. Curtis Senior says, "If one logger gets a black eye, all loggers get a black eye. Black eyes are bad for business." And it's this perspective that is behind Tower Timber being named Oregon's Southwest Operator of the Year in 2005.

Curt's dad described the job that led to the award. "The state forester was hesitant to issue permits to harvest 160 acres of company-owned forestland because it was visible from I-5. So we proposed a harvest plan that included buffers, numerous leave trees and an engineering evaluation for slides. When the engineer said that 10 acres would slide someday, whether we cut it or not, we did not touch it so loggers would not be blamed for another slide when it occurred. Although it was technically a clear-cut, the harvest was completed almost unnoticed because of the number of trees we left."

In addition to the changing harvesting landscape, companies like Tower face the challenges of changing workforce scene. “At 34, I am the youngest guy here,” says Curt, who leaves his home at 1 a.m. and returns at 7 p.m. "Logging is just plain hard work and it is hard to get young guys who are willing to put in the long hard days required of loggers. There are plenty of guys who want a job, but few really want to work. And margins are so tight it is hard to pay these guys what they are worth." The company recently added travel pay and medical coverage to help retain quality employees.

Curtis Johnson in the seat of a Prentice 610 rubber-tired shovel.

To further enhance its thinning operation, Curt is considering adding a shovel with drums to turn the shorter corridors with smaller crews, freeing the harder to move swing yarder to long the pulls. He adds though, "Travis, the more frugal one, will make sure it is the right decision and, if we do it, he will get us the best interest rate."

The future of Tower Timber looks positive. The brothers, and the four generations before them, have been able to change with the times. They've been able to succeed at the detail-oriented jobs while keeping a great crew together and their eye on the big picture."Logging is not a job, it's a family tradition in the blood," says Curt.




This page was last updated on Saturday, October 21, 2006