By Lindsay Mohlere
When Russ Young bought out his father’s road building side and eventually added logging, little did he know that nearly twenty years later, Iron Triangle Logging would be positioned as one of the timber industry’s leading examples of successful innovation and business savvy.
Based in John Day, Oregon, Iron Triangle Logging is one of the largest timber operations on the east side of the Cascades, employing over 100 people. The name Iron Triangle represents the three forests the company works in: Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman, and Malheur.
Throughout the years after he took over the family business, Young’s primary focus was cut-to-length (CTL). In those days, Iron Triangle fielded five logging sides as well as a road building operation, and CTL was viewed as “the most productive and cost-effective way to log in the stands that we were in,” Young says.
Iron Triangle’s work load was a 50-50 split between government and private sales, averaging about 35 MMBF per year. “We were strong in Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman, and Malheur forests. Ten years ago, we had a cut-to-length love affair that was really strong on the Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman. Low ground pressure, light on the land approach to move forward,” Young says.
What began as a restart to the family business has now morphed into a dynamic model of modern day mechanized logging and community collaboration.
Bold Steps Out of the Box
Several years ago, the Malheur Lumber Company mill in John Day announced it was closing because it could not get enough wood. The dismal housing market and looming recession, along with federal logging restrictions, environmental litigation, and diminishing private sales contributed to this dilemma. The demise of the Malheur Lumber Company would have dire economic and social consequences for the small community of John Day, as well as all of Grant County.
That reality, coupled with the fact the Malheur National Forest was overgrown, insect-infested, and a tinderbox ready to explode, led to a unique collaboration of loggers, environmentalists, ranchers, landowners, timber industry execs, elected government officials, and Forest Service managers, dedicated to finding common ground to craft a solution to the problem.
In 2006, as a result of this collaboration, Blue Mountain Forest Partners (BMFP) was formed and emerged as the operating organization. In 2013, an innovative 10-year stewardship contract was awarded to Iron Triangle to promote ecological restoration, reduce the risk of wildfire, and boost the economic vitality of the region.
The partnership increases the allowable harvest in the Malheur National Forest to 50 MMBF per year with a goal of reaching 75 MMBF per year.
“It’s a bottom-up restoration project, rather than a top-down restoration. Thinning is viewed as a bottom-up restoration,” Young says. “The reality of the contract is that it is an incorporation of fiber element into the timber removal process to make it palatable for goods for services. Its intent is to subsidize the removal of the biomass element or treatment element whether it’s thinning and piling or fiber removal.”
Additionally, the Malheur Lumber Company mill has remained open. That mill and the Boise Cascade Wood Products mill in Pendleton process most of Iron Triangle’s logs and fiber. Early studies by the University of Oregon and Oregon State University indicate positive economic growth that has supported more than 100 private-sector jobs in the John Day area alone.
With this bold step out of the box, the John Day and Grant county communities, along with Iron Triangle, have helped pave the way for future collaborative actions in other regions and forests. In addition, litigation has come to a halt since the collaboration/ten-year contract has been in force.
According to Evergreen Magazine, the publication of the nonprofit forestry research and educational Evergreen Foundation, there is a “sea-change in the way federal judges are now viewing collaborative forest restoration projects.” Other examples of the success of collaborative groups overcoming environmental lawsuits are the North Fork Mill Creek A to Z Project on Washington State’s Colville National Forest and the Tower Fire Salvage Project and Grizzly Fire Salvage and Restoration Project in northern Idaho.
The Right Iron Is the Key
Like all logging operations, in addition to experienced crews, success depends on having the right iron for the task at hand. Since its meager beginnings, Iron Triangle has relied on Valmet/Komatsu forest machines as its preferred equipment line.
“Valmet was the product line we followed in cut-to-length, and they were bought out by Komatsu,” Young says.
“We basically had to streamline once we got the 10-year. We had to significantly upgrade,” Young adds. “Komatsu came in as a partner once we secured the 10-year. They, along with Modern Machinery in Boise, Idaho, helped us supply the rapid increase of equipment we needed with newer and different machines.”
To tackle the 10-year, Iron Triangle had to be more consistent in its operations. The contract is on a two to three-year rotation of tasks that need to be completed every year. “We have to go through 50 MMBF per year to stay on pace and scope with the contract,” Young says.
Iron Triangle’s equipment stable includes numerous Komatsu XT430 feller bunchers, several forwarders, log loaders, processors, and Pierce strokers, along with a few dozers and excavators. The company’s roster also includes machines from Caterpillar, John Deere, and Hitachi.
One of the major challenges of the stewardship contract that Iron Triangle faces is location. “The 10-year began about six years too late,” Young says. “There’s only one manufacturer, and before, there was another mill in the area. We’re heavily invested in our trucking fleet in order to get the product to market.”
To that end, Iron Triangle runs 12 or 13 log trucks and also contracts out to around six independent haulers to keep up the pace. “About half our fleet is quick-change. We can go to long logs, but most of our loads are short logs. Our payloads average 35 tons. We can haul the weight.”
Employees Are the Secret to Success
“Prior to the stewardship contract, we were going to be a smaller company, possibly as few as 20 to 30 people,” Young says. “I’m really happy we were able to keep our employees and even add some. They are the backbone of Iron Triangle.”
“Iron Triangle is not an “I” company,” Young adds. “My success is entirely based on my employees. I would put Iron Triangle crews up against anybody. We’re strong from top to bottom. From our truckers to equipment operators. We have a strong workforce, and we give them the tools to show off their talent. You could have the best operator and a lousy piece of equipment, and you’re going to get a mediocre job. Not by the operator’s doing, but by the machine’s deficiencies. Our equipment has allowed these guys to show off their ability and be as good as they can be.”
The company has always been ahead of the curve, providing excellent company benefits even before such benefits like health insurance were mandated. “We have a lot of long-term employees, and we’ve always been an insurance based company. We did everything we could even when we didn’t have to,” Young says.
Young emphasizes that whether it is employee benefit plans or contracting with other loggers as part of providing an economic benefit to the community, Iron Triangle always tries to do whatever makes the most sense for the customer, wood supply, and community.
On the Cover
Photo taken by Lindsay R. Mohlere at the Iron Triangle operation in John Day, Oregon
Father and Son Carry on Family Tradition
Father and son find themselves switching hats between equipment and tasks
Congress heating up forest management and wildfire funding
Riding the Cutting Edge
Iron Triangle Logging, example of leader in innovation and business savvy
From Crisis to Clean Up
Wolfpack Wood Recycling called in to assist when spillway issues occur at Orville Dam
Logging Tire Choice Impacts Bottom Line
Tires impact performance in the forest, but not every setup is ideal for every forest setting
Portable Grinders and Chippers
Community forests shaping the name of change