By Lindsay R. Mohlere
When Steve Smith, president of Newport Equipment Enterprises Inc., in Newport, Washington, graduated from Washington’s Spokane Community College, he thought he would pursue a career in law enforcement. But like many college grads, what you study in college is not necessarily what you eventually end up doing. “I ended up logging. Went to work for my wife Debra’s father, Ted Monk and her uncle at Monk Brothers Logging. Logging paid better,” Smith says.
According to Smith, the biggest challenge he faced when first starting out was “having the guts to grow” and finding financing. Since 1988, Smith and Debra have weathered the ups and downs of running their own timber business by doing things a little different than most and not being afraid to try something new. They’ve taken a few chances along the way and diversified to become one of the largest logging outfits in northeast Washington and the Inland Northwest.
Currently, Smith runs two cut-to-length sides, one tree-length side, and a road and rock side.
“We’ve got about 23 people working, and most of them have been with me for more than 10 years. Some are in the pit, some on the road, and some logging. Dennis Heine has been with me for over 28 years. He can do anything. Drive truck, forwarder. Everything,” Smith says.
Smith says employee retention and finding new hires is not a problem; however, he did admit that truck drivers are a difficult breed to find.
Most of the work is in logging, road building, and excavating, with bank reinforcement and rock products tagging along.
“When we got into the rock business, I had a 15-acre pit. Now we got 200 acres. There’s a lot of snow in this country. In the winter, we would plow all of Newport and Old Town — did the Safeway. We kept men busy. We plow to keep the side open,” says Smith.
Smith’s business model is similar to many logging operations, but his approach and reliance on constructive non-conformity (a.k.a. thinking outside the box) has served him well.
According to Smith, the key to his success is that he has always been willing to try something new and different.
“Like processors when they first came out. Or feller bunchers when they first came out.
We tried them and thought they’d work for us,” says Smith. “I went to the factory in New Zealand where the Waratahs were first built. Before John Deere stepped in and bought them. They could see that was going to be a great, great machine.”
Fire Is Everyone’s Business
As with many of the logging contractors working on the east side of the Cascades, most of the men working for Smith have Forest Service red cards, qualifying them to work fires if the situation arises, which it often does.
One of the largest fires the Smith crews have fought was the 26,000-acre Kalispel fire in 2017.
A year later, Newport Equipment was called to another fire to assist the Forest Service in fire suppression.
Smith’s idea was to lowboy in harvesters, skidders, and the rest of the equipment and fight the fire at night, taking advantage of abated wind velocity and cooler temperatures. Unfortunately, the Forest Service nixed the idea. The USFS thought the tactic would be too dangerous and shut down the nighttime operations.
However, the fire was beginning to encroach on Stimson Lumber ground on which Smith and company were working. When Stimson gave the go-ahead to Smith, his crews resumed hauling in equipment to fight the fire along the Stimson boundary — during the night. The nighttime efforts, and Smith’s willingness to try something different, enabled the crews to establish a solid fire line that stopped the incursion into Stimson ground, saving thousands of acres of trees. The efforts also benefited the Forest Service despite their opposition to fighting the fire at night.
Recently, the Smith crew encountered an odd occurrence on one of their cut-to-length (CTL) sides they operate for Vaagen Brothers.
On a crisp October Sunday morning, long-time employee Joe Gaffney and his 10-year-old son took a drive up to one of Smith’s CTL sides. As he approached the site, Gaffney noticed smoke ahead of them.
A young man driving a side-by-side came from the direction of the smoke, and told Gaffney he had just encountered a fire; he thought it might have been a hunter’s warming fire that started it all.
As Gaffney neared the blaze, he saw a Valmet forwarder and a Deere forwarder engulfed in flames. “If you’ve never heard a skidder tire blow up, you’d be shocked how loud it is,” Gaffney commented. “It sounded like a sonic boom or something. Real eerie. We got to sit there and listen to all 16 of them blow up.”
Regarding the source of the fire, Gaffney says, “Couldn’t prove who started it. You could see it started way up the hill. Fire inspector said it started right by the grapple. Nobody did it on purpose. Bad things just happen.”
A Different Approach Than Most
When it comes to managing three logging sides and a road and rock side, Smith deploys a variety of equipment to keep his operation running at peak productivity and efficiency, while still applying some outside-the-box techniques.
On Smith’s Vaagen Brothers CTL side, a Tigercat LH830C equipped with a Waratah head, cuts and processes the logs and then sets them off to one side. A John Deere Brandt 1910E forwarder, which features an operator station that automatically levels and rotates, comes in and picks up the logs. At that point, the forwarder moves to a waiting Western Star log truck and loads the truck. “We do it a little bit different than anybody else,” says Smith.
While John Deere is his preferred manufacturer, Smith is not anchored to any one particular machine. “We give our guys a choice of what they want,” says Smith. “If they want a CAT loader, they get a CAT loader. If he wants a John Deere, he’ll get the Deere. It makes a lot of sense, and they’re proud of what their machine does, what it looks like and all.”
Today, running a diverse, multi-tasked company requires a huge commitment to equipment. Clearly, Smith is a devotee of logging rather than “fixing.” In all, Smith’s equipment roster features more than 50 machines, including tractors, excavators, dozers, firetrucks, log trucks, forwarders, harvesters, and such.
The large lineup allows the Newport logger to do things his way. And he plans to continue doing just that.
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