By Lindsady Mohlere
The evolution of a business is never a sure thing. The path to success is often littered with bumps and ruts that can upend the process. However, being able to adapt to a changing business environment and overcoming the many challenges of ownership and growth, truly separates the men from the boys. For Mark Swanson, president of Mark Swanson Logging of Orofino, Idaho, having the ability to change mid-stride and grasp opportunity has proven his mettle for 36 years.
Learning the Ropes
Like many logging company owners, Mark grew up in a logging family, following his dad around the landing, “holding the dumb end of the tape since I was about eight or nine,” he says.
After graduating from high school in 1979, Mark worked full-time for his dad’s company, S&M Logging, learning the logging business from the ground up. After five years working in the family business, Mark got an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I was logging for my father, working for him, and the mill in Elk City, Idaho, needed a line logger... a yarder side, so I told him I’d give it a shot. That’s how I got started. It was 1984,” says Mark.
At the time, Mark didn’t know much about yarders, so when he took up the challenge, he went out and found five or six experienced guys to help out. His first machine was a Skagit.
“It was an SJ-2R. I learned quite a bit how to work on stuff with that thing. I then had a 98 Link-Belt built for skidding, and we used it for five or six years. Got rid of that and bought a Thunderbird 6140,” says Mark.
In 2008, when the economy crashed and burned, Mark faced an extremely challenging situation that called for a radical change.
“At the time when prices were all pretty low in 2008, the mills said they didn’t have any work. They didn’t want to put any line loggers out. They wanted to lay us off, and I said I’m going to lose my crew. I called every mill I’d ever logged for, told them that if I lose my crew, if they can’t find us work, I’m selling it. And that’s what I did. Now I’ve got two CAT sides,” he says.
The Challenges of Machines
According to Mark, he doesn’t have a particular equipment philosophy, but he is partial to Tigercat, of which he has four machines.
“I’ve got two Tigercat bunchers. One is a 2016 830D. The other one is a 2005 830. Another Tigercat 860 is equipped with a Waratah 623 processor. I’ve also got a Tigercat 632E rubber tire skidder and two John Deere skidders,” says Mark.
Mark’s equipment stable also includes three Doosan DX 225. “They do a good job. The oldest one is six years old,” he says.
Additionally, Mark gyppos out a Komatsu 240 with a Waratah 623 head, owned and operated by Cory Pearson.
Mark runs four Western Star log trucks with a Peterbilt handling lowboy duties. “We also have a short logger in our string of trucks. I couldn’t find any gyppos to run a short logger, so I had to buy my own. At least I have access to one now,” he says. The company also contracts hauling with other trucking outfits in the area.
Mark indicated that general maintenance of the machines is handled by the operators, and if there is a breakdown, they call in Triad Machinery mechanics. “If it’s something we can’t handle, that’s who we go to,” he says.
While the challenges of the timber business have changed over the years, the struggle at the bottom line has not. “When I first started out, I didn’t have good enough equipment under me. Breakdowns were hurtful,” says Mark. “It’s gotten a lot easier as I’ve been able to upgrade and start buying new equipment.”
Mark adds that the biggest challenge of today is staying busy and knowing where your work is. “We always seem to stay busy, but I think it would be a lot handier — and a lot better for the industry — if you were a contractor for a mill and they would always keep you busy. Then you could count on a nine- or 10-month season, instead of having to go hunt up some work.”
Currently, Mark’s average harvest is around 20-25 MMBF per year working for several different mills, including Idaho Forest Group, Potlatch Lumber, Guy Bennett Lumber, Stella Jones, and the State of Idaho.
“We don’t do much salvage, but we’re doing some clear cuts for Potlatch and some thinning for state timber sales,” Mark says, adding that they recently built some roads.
“We just started this last summer; it went okay,” he says. “We had a little bit to learn there, but we got the roads in, and everybody was happy. But I’m not sure we’re going to do more. I’d have to get rigged up with some equipment a little bit better to do it, and we’ll have to grab the crews that can do it too.”
A Steady Crew for the Work Ahead
To date, Mark Swanson Logging employs a total crew of 15 for both CAT sides and trucking. When Mark bailed out of the yarder business and jumped into ground-based ops, he essentially made the move to keep his crew intact. “It didn’t hurt that much,” says Mark referring to the switch. “We’re all getting older, and those line strips looked a little bit steeper than it used to be,” he chuckles. “A whole lot steeper.”
Mark feels privileged to have a dependable and loyal crew. “Having a damn good crew and one that stays with you is really the secret. It’s nearly impossible to do this work without one. I’m fortunate to have guys pretty well stay with me, so I haven’t had to break in too many people,” he says, noting that breaking in a new guy can be difficult because you have to get so much done. And newer employees aren’t necessarily up to the task.
“It’s hard to find someone that wants to work hard.”
A funny thing happened when Mark Swanson, president of Mark Swanson Logging ventured out to find a book about logging for a friend’s young son. He couldn’t find one. So he decided to write his own and publish it.
Using the nom de plume Troy Sawdust, Mark authored the book, teamed up with Printcraft Printing in Lewiston, Idaho, to create the graphics, and published a colorful children’s book — complete with real-life photos — about how a healthy forest makes everyone happy.
The story line begins with stating an old forest is not always good and moves through the process of turning it into a healthy forest through logging. The book also illustrates how the logs are turned into wood and wood products. The simple format and straight forward approach of the book tells the story of forest to mill to home and back again.
So far Mark figures he has sold “maybe a couple of thousand,” putting the profits into his grandchildren’s college savings account. One buyer of the book was Idaho Forest Group, who distributed the books to schools in smaller communities. Mark notes, however, “I give away more than I sell.”
For more information and to purchase the book, please contact [email protected].
ON THE COVER
Image of Mark Swanson Logging putting its Tigercat through its paces.
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