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
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
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.