By Andrea Watts
1.25 million—that’s the number of acres the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) intends to treat in central and eastern Washington over the next 20 years to create healthier and resilient forests.
Creating these forests will require a combination of prescribed burning, precommercial thinning and commercial logging, and mastication — and already there are contractors on the ground performing this work. Two such contractors are Unlimited Land Services and Swedberg Contracting Corp., who specialize in mastication and chipping services to help small forest landowners mitigate their wildfire risks.
Unlimited Land Services
Clayton Burch, owner of Unlimited Land Services in Kettle Falls, Washington, got his start in the timber industry. Right after high school, he went to work out in the woods. Eventually, he traded the forest for a sawmill and worked as an equipment operator for Boise Cascade. In the evenings, he found himself reading articles on masticating and mulchers.
“There was nothing around here like masticators in eastern Washington,” Burch explains. “The machines were pretty popular down South and the East, and we had nothing that I knew of at the time, so I did a little more research.”
Burch recalls looking at different masticators until finding an affordable ASV RC100 paired with a Fecon head. “And I thought, ‘What the heck, I’m going to go for it,’” he says. “It was a pretty big risk at the time because no one knew what the machines were capable of. No one understood what they could do.”
In 2007, when Burch bought his machine, he only had one job lined up. After an article ran in the local newspaper about his services, a utility company contacted Burch and asked if he could use the masticator on their right-of-way areas under the power lines.
“I was up there for four hours,” Burch says. “The line foreman said, ‘How long can you stay?’ I told him I could stay until it got dark. ‘No,’ he said. ‘How long can you stay? We want you here until the snow arrives.’”
Burch worked for the utility company until the snow arrived. It took a couple of years for word of his business to spread until he had steady work. He worked for the Colville Tribe and then started taking on cost-share work through the Washington State DNR. “I became their number one contractor for the tri-county area,” Burch says. His work is now primarily for small forest landowners, and he no longer hustles for work.
Burch says that landowners are pretty amazed that his machine does away with the customary practice of hand cutting the brush and trees, and burning the debris. The masticator can grind brush and trees up to six inches in diameter and returns the debris to the forest floor as mulch.
The machine can handle larger size trees, Burch says, but those sizes slow production, which results in higher production costs. And of the trees that are large enough for firewood, his team will long-butt them instead.
Since the masticator head runs along the ground, a rocky site or one with significant slope may require the material being cut by hand and hauled to the equipment for mulching. While the skills gained by operating a processor are transferrable to operating a masticator, the operator must be more aware of the terrain, since the head runs on top of the ground. “You got to be looking for rocks, stumps, and garbage that people throw away,” Burch says. He has run over everything from bed springs to moose hides. “You never know what you’re going to find.”
Burch still has the original machine, the ASV RC100, and he recently bought a newer model a few years ago. “I haven’t gone any other route because I know what they’re capable of. I know how to work on them.” Although there are bigger machines out there, the private landowners “like the rubber tracks and the light footprint [the ASV] leaves on the ground,” Burch says. “It just fit the plan I had, and it still does to this day.” With the masticator weighing 10,000 lbs., he can use a 16,000 GVW trailer to haul it between job sites.
Burch’s crew consists of Zach Noble, Bryce Rieckers, and Chris Burch, who works part-time. “Basically, I can get away with running an operator and a guy on the ground doing saw work,” Burch says. With the threat of wildfires on everyone’s mind, he is a sought-after contractor once the snows melt. Although he could work during the winter, Burch prefers not to since the stumps can’t be mulched down to the ground because of the deep snow, and the rocks aren’t visible.
One lesson he has learned about masticators is they are high maintenance. “There’s a lot of wear and tear on the head,” Burch says, adding, “you need to plan for and put money away for maintenance, and replace parts whether it needs it or not.” With his dealer in Spokane, Burch can have replacement parts the next day, but he also stocks extra parts to prepare for the unexpected breakdown.
Other mastication contractors have started in the area, but Burch has seen a number of them fail. “It comes down to working hard,” he explains, as to why he’s been successful. “You just got to be willing to put in the hours. I enjoy being out in the woods; it’s more of a hobby than work since I enjoy being out in the woods.”
In March 2008, at only 22 years old, Adam Swedberg took a chance on a grant through the DNR to do fuels reduction work for small forest landowners. The work only lasted through the end of 2009. “The beginning of 2010 was a little rougher start,” Swedberg says. “But I found some jobs and kept going.”
Hustling for work took him from Forks, Washington, to Thompson Falls, Montana. He even did contract logging for a couple of mills in northeast Washington before deciding to focus exclusively on fuels reduction work.
From 2011-2015, Swedberg worked primarily for small forest landowners through DNR’s cost-share program. The jobs can range in size, generally averaging about five acres, and Swedberg says the treatment work is primarily around the structures or the area surrounding the structures. “I’ve done a lot of projects and got a lot of compliments,” he says proudly.
In addition, another source of funding for small landowners is through the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the county conservation district. “Working with the landowners has its ups and downs,” he says. “Some are great to work with, and others need more attention. Everyone has their own ideas and objectives for their project, some of them have a harder time communicating the objectives, or maybe I just have a harder time understanding.”
Swedberg uses a wide range of tools for the fuels reduction work, including chippers that are similar to what arborists use, but they run on tracks. His first machine was an old chuck and duck, pull-behind chipper that Swedberg describes as brutal to work with. In 2012 he purchased a J.P. Carlton self-propelled tracked chipper that happened to be the second self-propelled chipper in Washington State he was aware of; now there are three. Last year he upgraded to a self-propelled Brush Bandit 15xp chipper.
In addition to the chippers, Swedberg also runs two Kobelco mini-excavators, one with a shear to cut and bunch the trees and the other with a grapple to feed the chipper. “This has greatly improved efficiency of our work,” Swedberg says. “The grapple replaced five laborers to feed the chipper. Before, we primarily used to hand cut everything, picked it up, and fed it in the chipper.”
This spring Swedberg purchased a 2017 New Holland 235 Skid Steer paired with an AFE Mini-Might mulcher. “I chose this style of mastication head hoping that it will have less soil disturbance than a conventional drum style head.”
Running these machines is a crew that consists of Ray Davis, Dean Page, Matt Thompson, and Marty Greer. Swedberg credits his crew for his company’s ability to take on multiple projects across diverse ownerships. One of the clients is the Colville National Forest, and Greer works exclusively on that project with a 2011 TimberPro TL735B with a mastication head on it.
Just as on logging jobs, when taking on mastication and chipping jobs, it’s important to have a good crew to ensure the landowner is pleased with the end result and to ensure the equipment remains in good working order, because the risk of damaging mastication and chipping equipment is even greater.
“Because of the high RPMs of these machines, if the teeth impact anything hard such as rocks, it can cause a lot of damage,” Swedberg explains. “Wire can ruin your day as well; it doesn’t take much time to roll up a quarter mile of fence.”
All photos are courtesy of Adam Swedberg.
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