Sept Oct, 2002





A Fight For Trees

Idaho Contractor Mike Reynolds helps community tackle 7,200 acre stewardship project

By Barbara Coyner

Mike Reynolds poses next to his new masticator.

When Priest River, Idaho, bills itself as “a progressive timber community,” it means it. The feisty western town formed an all-volunteer army of logging, business and environmental interests, then aggressively went after — and snagged — one of 28 coveted national forest stewardship pilot projects. Even Congress and Forest Service officials stood up and took notice after the Priest River Development Corporation beat out big established companies with its stewardship vision.

The project
The project, dubbed as the Lakeface-Lamb Stewardship Project, encompasses 7,200 acres, a mix of private and national forest lands, with some 1,768 acres slated for treatment. Much of the land is near picturesque Priest Lake. Treatments range from commercial thinning and watershed restoration, to wildlife enhancement, road obliteration and replanting, with some recreational improvements and other optional work thrown in as funding allows.

One unique aspect is that income from timber will come directly back into the community to achieve stated goals such as paying contractors and accomplishing tasks. And none of the money will go to Washington D.C. or traditional government channels. “We are the first in the country to get one of these projects as a strictly volunteer group. They called it community stewardship and we are definitely community based,” says Liz Johnson-Gebhardt, forest stewardship committee member and spokesperson for the group. A Minnesota transplant, she initially opposed logging, but after watching forest management for a number of years, decided that forest health and rural community health aren’t mutually exclusive.

Jeff Connolly and Liz Johnson-Gebhardt stand at the proud sign at the entrance to Priest River, Idaho.

The logger
Of course a progressive timber community can’t win a forest stewardship project without key elements like logging contractors and mills — vital infrastructure missing from many small communities today. Enter logging contractor Mike Reynolds and his foreman Jeff Connolly, who have stayed ahead of the curve by keeping three ingredients in their operation: a strong land ethic, up-to-date equipment and heavy doses of community spirit. Connolly, a Priest River city councilman, joined the stewardship effort at Reynolds’s suggestion, and has served as chairman of the committee.

After months of work and plenty of jumps through bureaucratic hoops, the committee tapped Reynolds for its first three-month contract, after he met all the criteria of a detailed request for proposal. “I think this project is a great thing,” says Reynolds. “At least something’s happening if they can keep the ball rolling. It’s worked in Priest River because the people wanted it to work and got behind it, because we had to do something.”

The tools
As for Reynolds landing the first contract, he says having an experienced crew and innovative equipment and being local were important elements of the criteria. “The Forest Service favors single grip harvesterforwarder systems,” he adds. A cutto- length proponent for a number of years, Reynolds runs two Valmet 911C harvesters at the sites, along with a brand new Valmet 860.1 forwarder, which he acquired soon after his visit to Sweden last year. “The rubber-tired harvester is light on the ground,” he says. “The units are small so we have to move a lot, and these machines can work well in tight places. What we’re doing is mostly small diameter and pulp, which is what this system does well. We have about 200 hours on the new forwarder, and it has lots of flexibility in the way you can set up the programs.”

Jeff Reynolds pilots the Valmet 911 C harvester, which he says maneuvers easily in tight places.

Waiting in the wings is Reynolds’s new toy, a masticator head mounted on a Timbco. The four-foot disk developed by Pro Mac in California, can chew through limbs and trunks, reducing them to chunks in record time. Reynolds worked with the manufacturer to make his preferred modifications, and hopes the masticator can be put to use in some of the stewardship work in the future. For now, he has nearby landowners standing in line to try it out.

The requirements
Reynolds and Connolly are busy unraveling the Forest Service prescriptions, which include totally different treatments for each of the 78 units. The Priest River Ranger District and the Idaho Panhandle National Forest supervisor’s office have contributed forestry and contracting expertise, but district employee and major cheerleader David “Norgy” Asleson has been the real champion. The actual responsibilities for on-the-ground work, however, fall on the Reynolds logging crew, who are leading the way in the big experiment. “They tried to simplify the process by using descriptions instead of marking individual trees,” says Connolly of the Forest Service method for prescriptions. “It really slows things down because the operator has to get an eye for the correct diameter, then get in the cab and try to stay accurate.

Brian Ackerman takes the new Valmet 860.1 forwarder through its paces.

This is strictly operator eye and we’re monitoring to see results. There has to be documentation and my operators are a little intimidated. We walk through it and then they’re fairly confident, but each unit is different. There are varying stands and the Forest Service wrote prescriptions to address specifics in each unit.” Aware that this is Forest Service Director Dale Bosworth’s pet project, Connolly and Reynolds are continually looking over their shoulders. Reynolds admits, “We can’t have any runaways” with regard to staying within prescriptions. A monitoring group, made up of local citizens, loggers, environmentalists, scientists and other concerned citizens, will follow up with evaluations.

The mills
Several mills benefit from the project. One mill receives 9’6” logs with four-inch tops to make stud wood, while a family-owned mill gets pine peelers and dead Douglas fir, and two other mills accept sawlogs. This aspect won the hearts of Congress and the Forest Service as true rural economic development, according to Johnson-Gebhardt. “Our project manager Craig Savidge had a strong background in this and he negotiated with the mills,” says Connolly. “We were lucky to get a guy with so much background and expertise.”

The future
Reynolds is no stranger to federal timber sale. But the stewardship project is a new page. He expects it to furnish about 30 percent of his business this year, and he’s aware he’ll have to compete for additional work in the future (Future sites call for yarder work or other methods instead of cut-to-length). But he continues by simply doing a good job, and he pays little attention to the fact that this project is being watched at the national level. “You know, I used to be two steps ahead in this game,” he says. “Today, there are too many players and too many changes. I used to be able to predict. Now I wonder where we will pull another rabbit out of the hat.”


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