Ken Swanstrom, owner of Skookum Timber Harvesting, is well known for his goal of harvesting for the future good of Montana forests. His goal, besides making a living for himself and his crew, is to make Montana’s forests fire-safe, free of bug infestation, and keep its western gateway to the adjacent Glacier National Park as beautiful as he can for the 3 million people who visit each year.
“A portion of those three million humans leave this part of Montana and then go home and express their opinion to others,” he said. “It’s my hope that they speak well of timber harvesting in Montana.”
Swanstrom named his company Skookum for a Chinook Indian word that means strong, powerful, and brave. He and his two-man crew are determined to do good work. They make their removal selections right from the seat of the equipment, which today includes a TimberPro 745D feller buncher with a 24-inch Quadco head.
Ties to TimberPro
The TimberPro is used for harvesting timber, and a John Deere 748H grapple skidder normally is used to get the trees to the landing. There they are processed with a John Deere 2154D forestry swing machine paired with a Waratah 622C processing attachment. The logs are stacked and loaded with a Cat 320C forest machine. These pieces of equipment are, in Swanstrom’s words, “the four main machines that go every day.”
Swanstrom has been operating the TimberPro lately has, with only two employees, he has been short-handed. He has plenty of experience, though. “I got my 20 years in on a buncher a long time back,” he said. The men are all cross-trained “and can move around wherever needed,” he added.
The company has some older machines in reserve: two Timbco track harvesters, a John Deere 648 grapple skidder, and another Cat 320C forest machine. In addition, for building and maintaining roads the company has three bulldozers and two motor graders.
Swanstrom has long ties to TimberPro and its predecessor company, Timbco, which were owned by Pat Crawford, now deceased. “I’ve been a Timbco fan since the beginning,” said Swanstrom. He invested in his first Timbco in 1994 and followed that by owning seven used machines.
The TimberPro D-Series of track bunchers and harvesters is powered by a Cummins L9 Performance Series Tier 4/Stage 5 engine that generates 338 hp and provides 57,800 foot pounds of swing torque. The Cummins L9 engine enables increased fuel economy and longer maintenance intervals for reduced operating and ownership costs.
Designed with almost zero tail swing, it features a larger cab with improved visibility in front and on the boom side. A digital climate control system keeps the cab temperature steady and comfortable.
The TimberPro 745D is available with leveling capability, and a winch assist-tethering hitch is optional.
Swanstrom purchased his TimberPro 745D in the spring of 2021. It has more bells and whistles, he noted. “After 1,200 hours, we haven’t had a single problem with it. It’s a good machine.”
Federal and state agencies own 61 percent of Montana’s forest land. “The state agencies are quite easy to work with, but the U.S. Forest Service is a different deal,” said Swanstrom.
“My biggest complaint with the feds is their mandatory requirement to remove non-saw material, small trees (three to six inches on the butt) that won’t make a log. Some of the people that buy these federal sales have thousands of tons of small material they have to remove, but there is no viable market for it.”
“The only market close by is Weyerhaeuser,” he added, “and their new deal is you need to sell them some loads of peelers to sell the non-saw.” Non-saw material is processed by chipping or grinding and used for pulp, he noted.
The Forest Service does not have to abide by state burning laws, said Swanstrom. “What they can’t give away as firewood, in a couple of years they come along and throw a match to it. The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation allows loggers to use that material to line skid trails. As the wood is broken up and decomposes, it effectively acts as mulch, helping retain moisture and promoting regrowth.
Logged with Father
Swanstrom was in the seventh grade when his father left the farm in Illinois to work on the Libby Dam in Libby, Montana. His mother worked at a roadside diner where logging crews would eat, and Swanstrom worked for the same business as a boy, pumping gas out front and performing odd jobs.
Watching the loggers had a big impact on him. “I’d watch those guys put away those big plates of potatoes and beef and everything, and I was so impressed with the work they did and lifestyle they led, I said to myself, ‘This is my calling.’
After graduating from high school he worked on the landing for a couple of logging contractors. A year later, his father borrowed about $3,500 and bought a used 1959 International crawler dozer to skid logs.
“With three or four used chainsaws and his 1967 Chevy pickup, we started scratching out a living buying stumpage,” recalled Swanstrom. “I was doing the saw work, and my father was doing the skidding.”
Father and son worked together for eight years. Swanstrom reached the point where he was tired of falling small trees with a chainsaw and wanted to get a feller buncher. However, his father decided he was not going to borrow money to invest in more equipment, and parted ways with their log truck to focus on hauling wood. Swanstrom got a loan for a feller buncher and struck out on his own.
He began cutting timber for FH Stoltze Land & Lumber Co. in 1994. “In those days,” recalled Swanstrom, “you were interviewed for the job by Ron Buentemeier, the Stoltze lands manager. He asked many questions about your willingness to take care of Stoltze company lands. I’ve never forgotten that.”
When he began cutting for FH Stoltze, the company was harvesting timber on its own lands, removing about a third of the volume on the first entry, and another third seven or eight years later. The company relied on natural regeneration and opening up small plots to spur new growth.
Swanstrom worked with Stoltze forester Scott Hicswa. “He said, ‘Ken, once a day I want you to make a quarter-acre opening somewhere. Every day you’ll see a spot where there’s just bad trees. Make me one quarter-acre opening every day.’ Now, said Swanstrom, “I can’t even find them.”
Montana’s climate has gone through change, according to Swanstrom, and it is impacting forests. Through the 1970s, the state experienced a colder, wetter climate. “A lot of these species like spruce, subalpine fir, and grand fir got started and did well.” However, when the climate turned drier in the 1980s and 1990s, those species began to suffer.
“Though at this point it’s an unwritten practice, the state is now focusing its future on the western larch,” said Swanstrom. “Because of their lack of limb mass and good root systems that help make them wind and fire resistant, most of us agree the western larch is Montana’s future.”
Swanstrom buys standing timber and also contracts to cut and deliver wood. “It used to be about fifty-fifty,” he said. “We’ll see what this year brings.”
The average job size “really varies.” The smallest job he does is 20 acres. “It seems like 40, 60, or 80 acres is more the norm.” Douglas fir is probably the dominant species. “But we have a mix of all conifers here,” said Swanstrom.
The terrain is tough. “There’s very little good ground left,” said Swanstrom, “and lots of steep, rugged, rough ground in Montana.”
When asked how much production the company averages, Swanstrom said he never has set production goals. “I don’t see how you can if I promised the landowner to treat his land like my own.”
Swanstrom’s markets includes Weyerhaeuser’s stud mill and plywood plant in Kalispell, a pulp mill in Columbia Falls, a sawmill that specializes in making components for timber frame homes in St. Ignatius, several mills that make poles and fencing, and firewood businesses.
Swanstrom, past president of both the Montana Logging Association and the American Loggers Council, used to love taking long motorcycle camping trips. He traveled by motorcycle to Alaska and made six trips to Mexico. He once rented a motorcycle in Europe and traveled for two weeks.
“I like to point out that I couldn’t have done any of it without having a great crew that continued to work without me,” said Swanstrom. Nowadays he gets around on his property on a Yamaha 225.
In the 46-years he’s been working in and trying to improve Montana’s beautiful forests, Swanstrom says he hasn’t lost his passion for the industry.
“I’ve had one hell of a ride, and I have no regrets,” he said. “Working next to Glacier National Park has been both a dream and a curse, but I wish that park was in a different state.“