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By Barbara Coyner
Steep slope logging, drones in the woods, and bio-cement were just three subjects that re-emphasized “this isn’t your grandfather’s logging,” during the 78th Annual Intermountain Logging Conference in Spokane recently.
The always-enticing lineup of new machines and demonstrations was of course a big draw, and clearly the perfect weather bumped up the attendance. With a varied program and diverse vendors, conference goers heard upbeat presentations on market conditions, equipment innovation, and new approaches to make working in the woods safer.
Steep Slope Logging
Steep slope logging, still in its infancy in this country, showed up big on the radar as Eric Krume of Krume Logging and Summit Machinery, flashed dramatic pictures across the screen. He noted that some partners in New Zealand have only been doing steep slope logging for five or six years. Now the technique is getting a good look in this country.
“We’re using cable-assist machines, and the rules are still being developed,” said Krume of the move to offset hand falling, which remains one of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S. “But we don’t want to trade one danger for another.”
Some of Krume’s photos showed machines working on over 70 percent slopes, as he mentioned the immediate impressions most people have. “Some people think we just dangle things over steep cliffs, but the real issue is how much traction is available. Machines have to be designed for this.”
Krume noted that steep slope logging at this point is still very challenging in terms of equipment, yet the advantages can be dramatic. Compared to hand falling, mechanizing can reduce breakage, be more productive, minimize road-building, and require fewer culverts and less road maintenance. “This can change the industry,” he emphasized. “It takes the place of some of the things we are doing out there. Steep slope logging isn’t going to go away. It’s here to stay. You will either do it or hire it done, or you will not be here in five years.”
While new logging machines are already using high-tech procedures such as remote repair, GPS, and computerized volumes and inventory, Gary Licquia’s presentation on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—also known as drones—seemed totally space age. Licquia, of RDO Integrated Controls, narrated through pictures of various agricultural and forestry applications that reduce the actual time required to measure productivity and log volume. He covered both fixed wing and multi-rotor drones, stressing that such unmanned vehicles aren’t just for military operations. The ability to calculate the volume of a pile of logs, for example, can go from two weeks down to ten minutes, with a much more detailed assessment possible.
“These things can save money and human resources, plus you get more safety and in-depth information,” he said, adding that such efficiency can lead to better adaptive planning and quicker response to pressing forestry issues.
The breadth of subject matter covered in the Thursday morning panel best exemplified the variety of issues facing today’s logging contractors. Becky Carlson of Associated Insurance Services explained the details of new health care rules, presenting various possibilities for add-ons such as vision and dental coverage, and life insurance. Her comprehensive presentation showed the advantages of buying group coverage, available throughout the year, as opposed to buying individual coverage, which is only offered during a limited enrollment period.
The human element of logging employment wasn’t lost on the seasoned audience of logging contractors who find it ever more difficult to keep good employees. “If you want to recruit and keep good people, especially young families, offering insurance is a good incentive,” Carlson said.
Nick Lodato, Bio-Cement Technologies, also spoke during the morning session, explaining Bio-Cement, a soil additive that could potentially assist in road building in the woods. Discovered in 2006 by a University of Idaho researcher, Dr. Malcolm Burbank, the substance stimulates soil bacteria and cements particles together. Still in the research phase, the product drew the most questions from the audience during the question-and-answer portion of the panel, showing how much road-building concerns factor into logging.
With a keynote talk during lunch by Brooks Mendell of Forisk Consulting, conference attendees were treated to the big picture of what’s going on in the industry in terms of new startup businesses, housing market trends, and certain innovations that still lack proven track records. Citing the example of proposed cellulosic ethanol plants in the U.S., Mendell noted that nothing in terms of commercial production has happened beyond lab developments. The example served to illustrate just how much new theories and products have to be tested before being added into the marketplace.
At the same time, he said that when he drives past a shuttered sawmill with a security guard and maintenance crew still on board, he holds out hope that a particular mill might actually restart at some point. Mendell hoped to acquaint conference goers with the critical thinking needed before industry people invest heavily in a new project.
Hitting some of the high points in today’s Northwest logging picture, both presenters and conference attendees walked away, excited about new equipment, yet aware how cautious contractors have to be, especially in the West. As Mendell pointed out, the Pacific Northwest was once the number one source for softwood. As a result of the spotted owl chapters, action shifted to Canada, which in turn suffered its own down side with beetle kill. As the South ramped up softwood production to become number one, housing starts are again up, offering new opportunities in the Northwest. The conference theme, “A Bright Future,” seemed to resonate as seasoned contractors and workers considered another dose of possibilities.
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