How One Colorado Company Helps Stop Forest Fires
By Bob Lawrence
Dave Dodd knew he was doing things right, when a raging forest fire stopped dead in its tracks last summer, after reaching a 127-acre spread his company thinned in southern Colorado’s San Isabel National Forest. Equally important, the fire-break project Dodd’s company, Enviro Land Management (ELM), had completed just seven months earlier, was instrumental in saving the small town of Greenwood. “That was the first time we had a project that really did what a prescription was supposed to do,” explains Dodd of Grand Junction, Col., home base for his mechanical land thinning and rehab company.
Completed in December 2004 for the Forest Service, the project halting the 13,000 acre Mason Gulch Fire before it reached town, involved thinning junipers
and pinyons. “The project was designed to keep a potential fire from moving through the community, and that’s exactly what it did,” says Dodd. “Most of what ELM does is urban interface to protect communities, mitigating the chances of fire, by thinning dense areas so you don’t have ladder fuels — all the underneath small trees and materials — that can cause an intense fire,” says Dodd, adding, “you’ll also have a good looking forest.”
For all of its projects, ELM has used the Hydro-Ax 421, 621, and 721 manufactured by Blount. That was one of the reasons the company was asked to be the lone tester of the prototype 260HP Hydro-Ax 864. Another reason is that Dodd is also owner of Grand Junctionbased DDI Equipment Co. DDI has been a well-respected Hydro-Ax dealer for nearly 27 years, according to Jimmy Sorrell, Blount’s Industrial and CTR Sales Manager, who doubled as project specialist during 864’s development.
“Dave has made upgrades and changes to some of our older models, so consequently, we wanted to work with him on this test,” Sorrell explains. “We also knew that if the 864 worked well at the altitude and on the terrain ELM operates in, it would probably perform in most other areas we sell into.”
Working with More Power
Before testing the 864 prototype, Dodd had wanted a machine that could do more than its predecessors. As heexplains it, “we actually wanted more hydraulic flow for the different attachments and more horsepower.” They got that and more, according to grandson Denver Dodd, who took the 864 through a seven-month spin beginning in June 2005 in Colorado’s Durango and Rocky Mountain national parks, ending up in New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Forest in mid-January, 2006. Spanning 233 overgrown acres, the project was typical of the work ELM performs for the Forest Service. It began with a prework meeting with ELM and rangers to go over the prescription dictating the scope of the project — the cutting and mulching of pines and firs ranging 30’- to-50’ in height, and up to 9” DBH. The end result was the creation of a mosaic of open spaces and low-density stands of trees that would enrich the forest and curtail fires, according to Denver.
Operating the 864, Denver had the option of employing the tractor’s Quick-Tach system for factory-matched attachments such as the rotary ax brush mower, felling sawhead, stump grinder, and manufacturer-approved drum mulchers, and other powered attachments. He preferred the Woodchuck, which can cut and mulch larger trees up to 28” DBH. Manufactured by ELM/ DDI with a rotary mulching head 10’ wide and a disk cutting surface of 8’, it can take down and mulch a 50’ tree in less than a minute, according to Denver, who says that what remains are chunks of wood from one-to-three inches in diameter and a forest floor perfect for holding in soil moisture to generate grass growth and animal habitat.
A fellow operator on the same job was running a Hydro-Ax 721, a model Denver has used for years. By comparison, he believes the 864 performs better and is more productive on the mountainous 35-40 percent slopes. “This tractor is specifically made for forestry terrain and slope, and it works twice as good,” he says, adding that it’s “more balanced and stable than the 721.”
Feedback on the New Models
Because the machine was a prototype, Blount was eager for feedback from the Dodds prior to a January 2006 dual release of both the 864 and the 764, which is basically the same tractor with 220HP. Based on their feedback, Chris Williams, Hydro-Ax project specialist says, “we put a computerized flow control system on the auxiliary hydraulic so that when you switch between different attachments, the computer automatically senses and sets the pump flow for that attachment.”
Denver recalls no significant problems during the test, which put just under 1,000 hours on the tractor. In fact, the Dodds were so pleased, they purchased the prototype in January and ordered another. Plans are to phase out ELM’s older Hydro-Ax units and upgrade to the new models.
Although ELM wasn’t formed until 2001, DDI Equipment had years of experience doing logging and thinning via renting Hydro-Axes, and providing equipment operators to the Forest Service for national park projects in Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. As that part of the business grew, so did concern on the part of DDI’s insurance companies, which didn’t like the company’s employees operating rental equipment on the job. “That, and the growth in opportunities for this kind of work, was the catalyst leading to the start of ELM,” says Dave Dodd.
ELM’s Focus on Quality
ELM’s philosophy centers on doing business with those wanting a premium job. “In bidding on government or private projects, we’re selling service, quality, and value,” says Dave Dodd. But not everybody is buying it, opting for price instead. “That often comes back to bite them when a contractor suddenly packs up and leaves, or gets kicked off the job for poor performance.” As a result, he’s seen a change in some government bidding language, reflecting a desire to receive “the best value.” That, plus a grading system, which grades vendors on quality, narrows the field of competitors. As a result, rather than the lowest bid, “they’ll pick one of the quality companies, especially if it is a high profile project, such as a national park or state park.”
Employing ten people, ELM always has four-to-six projects going at a given time, which, at the moment is about right, according to Dave Dodd, who says that while 90 percent of the company’s work is forest related, the remainder involves thinning and land clearing for private entities. For example, after finishing the Santa Fe National Forest job a week ahead of schedule, Denver moved on to clear a 150-acre site near Albuquerque, NM, for a construction company building roads and pads for an electric wind-generating farm.
As for the Santa Fe project, “the trees are a lot healthier now, they don’t have to fight for moisture,” says Denver, “and that area of the forest is probably as close to being in a natural state than it’s been in for over a hundred years. And if there’s a fire, it’s going to stop right there where we were working. Those are the rewards we get.”
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