Sept, 2001





Finding Advantage In A Downsizing Industry 

Jerry Bowles committed to logging when others were pulling out. His hard work and quality work paid off. Bowles and Son are of the Potlach Coporation's number one harvesters.

By Barbara Coyner

Downsizing. It's infected logging as much as any other industry, leaving smaller logging crews, leaner mill staffs and reductions in other timber industry support services. But for independents such as Potlatch, Idaho logger Jerry Bowles, there may be a silver lining to all this. At 52, Bowles has seen it all. 

Jerry Bowles (right) and son Tony taking care of minor mechanic chores.

He broke into the profession 37 years ago, working with horses and a one-and-a-half-ton flatbed. Some years were tight, and he picked up income working in the mill, truck driving, selling firewood and building roads. But in the last ten years, his fortunes have changed. Unlike some of his associates in the area who got out of logging, Bowles dug in for the long haul, determined to ride out the upheaval caused by federal timber sale declines and other obstacles. The perseverance paid off, and today, Bowles and his son Tony are regarded as not only successful, but some of the region's best examples in the trade. 

A big break came when Bowles got on as a steady contractor for Potlatch Corporation in 1992. "Getting on with Potlatch was a lot of hard work," says Bowles, who grew up in Idaho's Palouse country near Moscow. "I had to prove myself and I just about begged and scrubbed to get jobs, but the jobs looked good when we got done. Potlatch forester Larry Chambers never told us we did the best job, but he told others we did. We try to be conscientious on our jobs." 

Always aware of the ups and downs in logging, Bowles continues to crank out quality work as his best business card. The diligence produced 9.6 mbf in 1999 for the company last year and netted Bowles and Son Logging Potlatch Corporation's Best Quality Log awards in 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998 and 1999. Behind the numbers, Jerry defines three strategies that keep him successful: quality work, mechanization and a father-son partnership. The quality work derives, in no small part, from a turn toward mechanization and the addition of son Tony to the business. But Bowles was never a stranger to forest management solutions. As a small operator, he was one of the first in the area to sign up for logger education and certification. 

Tony Bowles operates the Timbco T425 with Timbco barsaw.

"They'd just cut the governor's strip when I went to the class, and I was really impressed by what they were doing there," Jerry says. Determined to replicate the good forestry practices, Bowles always tried to keep a light footprint on the land. Private landowners, agencies and industry paid attention. Bowles used a small cat to keep logging disruption to a minimum, then later adopted high tech equipment to keep his small family operation competitive, while still causing minimal impact to the ground. The move toward cut-to-length technology came in the early 90's when Bowles rented a processor to keep up with Potlatch Corporation production demands. 

He added a Timberjack 2518, which Tony notes "pretty much made our company profits." A John Deere 690 ELC with a Denharco 3000 DT Denis delimber tightened up the landing and made sorting more efficient. The processor takes up to 24-inch logs, commonly found on Potlatch lands, and streamlines sorting, tremendously important when the logs are hauled to as many as seven area mills. A Timbco T425 feller-buncher with a Timbco bar saw is the newest acquisition, enabling Bowles to safely fall up to 28-inch logs.  "The Timbco can do in one day what three fallers can do," says Tony, with his dad adding that the John Deere "can do what three landing saws can do." "I like everything about mechanization," Jerry notes. "It's safer, faster and production is way up. It is boring, but I'll take boredom over a bad back, and I wouldn't trade back to the old ways." 

Jerry Bowles and the John Deere 690 ELC with Denharco 3000DT delimber at work on the landing.

With Tony operating the fellerbuncher and Jerry on processor, the duo is backed up by Jerry's brother and another contractor on necessary cat and skidder work. The father-son partnership clearly depends on mechanization to maximize profits and provide an income for two families. Ironically, Bowles initially did everything he could to discourage Tony from going into the uncertain profession, intending that his son get an education and stay out of the woods. Aware of his father's preferences, Tony did the college route, attending the University of Idaho in 1991, then sawing landing in the summer to pay for his tuition. By 1993, there was more sawing than studying, and though Tony thought a coaching career might be appealing, he couldn't warm up to the bookwork. 

Marriage in 1994 and the need for a steady paycheck cinched the decision to log, and he's not looking back. He likes the flexible hours, the spring layoff that allows him to spend time with his family, and the money. But beyond that, it's clear he likes working with his dad and working in the woods. An able mechanic, he can troubleshoot equipment as well as run it. He's also paid attention to his dad's advice about maintaining a clean and conscientious operation. Partners in every sense of the word, Jerry and Tony watch out for each other on the job, knowing that safety is enhanced by mechanization, but that machines can also be deadly when used carelessly. 

The two share a concern for good forestry practices, as well. "I can't take it when I see people do things wrong," Tony admits, agreeing with his dad that a good job generally allows for 16 to 20-foot spacing, with dominant trees left in place. The forestry savvy is important as Tony and Jerry work Potlatch ground. Unlike many others in the region who are thinning small private woodlots and harvesting small diameter logs, Bowles and Son Logging harvests larger trees, and focuses on intensive forest management of corporate holdings and critical forest health concerns. 

A recent project near Princeton, Idaho, prescribes 236 acres in commercial thinning, another 99 acres in clearcut, and 35 acres in seed tree. The contribution from mechanization is evident, and the equipment enables an essentially two-man crew to compete as viable contractors. But what of the future? Does Bowles and Son Logging want to grow? "We want to stay close to where we're at now," Jerry says, with Tony also scoffing at the notion of adding more employees as "just adding more headaches." Jerry, a man of few words, takes his current "success" in stride, as does his wife Gail. Both remember well the times of scratching for work, the steady decline of federal timber in the late 80's and throughout the 90's, the closure of the local lumber mill, and the see-saw of logging in general. 

Among locals, Bowles enjoys a reputation for hard work and sensible logging, but he knows that other forces beyond his control can turn his fortunes around in an instant. Yet he likes the work, the chance to be outdoors, the chance to be his own boss - and the chance to do things right in the woods. He also savors the changes in logging that steer him away from the dangers of old-time falling and skidding, and allow him and his son to envision a future in the trade with more safety and efficiency marked into the equation. 

Barbara Coyner has covered forestry issues and the timber industry for various magazines and newspapers for over 15 years.

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