July Aug, 2002





Thinning Down Wildfires

Wildland Fire Fuels
Treatment Trials At Idaho City

By Barbara Coyner

Right now in the western U.S. there are some 70 million acres of forests that need thinning to reduce wildfire hazards. Tree densities are frequently ten times what they need to be, and thinning could take years. In addition, mills are no longer in business in many areas, raising the question, what can be done with all the biomass as it is thinned? And if there’s no product to offset the costs, who will pay for it? The Dry Forest Mechanized Fuels Treatment Trials held this Spring in Washington, Oregon and Idaho were an attempt to find some answers to those questions before fires like those in Arizona and Colorado make the questions moot. The two-day Idaho trial was held in Idaho City, a historic mining area an hour south of Boise, and funded by the National Fire Plan. Philomath, Oregon, logger Keith Coulter, Tad Mason, a consulting forester from California, and the Idaho City Ranger District coordinated the event. Their goal was to bring together logging contractors, rural development specialists and agency personnel to brainstorm.

The Economizer portable sawmill chips and saws dimensional lumber with ease.

Trying Out Answers
"This is purely a research project," says Idaho City District Ranger Dick Markley. "We wanted logging contractors here so they can see how the equipment performs, gain a better level of understanding and maybe bid on the project." "We’re in an arena we haven’t dealt with before," says Leonard Roeber, Markley’s forestry tech. "We have acres and acres of small-diameter stuff that’s underutilized. Surely there’s a widget out there we can use, either a process or a product, something to utilize the product." Many other attendees were sharing the same thought. The event attracted 170 people, with 31 of them representing 15 logging firms. They witnessed a totally different kind of logging show — one tilted toward mulching and chipping rather than harvesting and featuring five very different thinning alternatives.

Feller-buncher & Chipper
At one trial, a Timbco T-425 worked the terrain in tandem with a grapple skidder, which hauled trees to a Bandit Tracked Whole Tree Chipper. Forest Service workers unfamiliar with fell-buncher technology watched the Timbco negotiate the slopes efficiently. The Bandit, a mobile chipper in the 30,000-pound class, featured a self-loading grapple and also showed off its flexi-bility in moving around in tight places, all the while exerting a light footprint on the ground. It made quick work of whole trees, scattering them on the forest floor as mulch.

The Nordstrom Mechanical Brush cutter reduces standing trees to large chunks

Brush Cutter & Excavator
A Slashbuster brush cutter put on a lively show with its mastication head, shaving standing trees into rough chunks. The brush cutter attachment was mounted on a 20 metric ton excavator and featured a hydraulically powered material handler, that can rotate 90 degrees. "This Slashbuster attachment has 3800 hours on it yet has required no maintenance other than grease and teeth" said Paul Milbourn, whose father developed the machine. "Silviculturalists are discovering that the coarse woody debris that is left behind plays an important role in the forest’s long-term sustainability" A Nordstrom Mechanical Brush Cutter was also performing at the show. Its brush cutter attachment was mounted on a Cat 322BLL Excavator that featured a hydraulically powered thumb, which can rotate 270 degrees. "The surface of the wheel is cutting at all times," said Dick Nordstrom, who developed the machine. "And the hydraulic thumb adds capacity to pick up trees of all sizes." A BLM fuels management specialist pointed out that the machines could do a variety of tasks such as removing trees, chipping and creating habitat trees. The machine also went easy on the duff layer and soil compaction.

Fecon & Bull Hog Team
Also in the lineup was a Fecon RT-400 Steel-Tracked Carrier with a Bull Hog BH 250 Mulching Head. The piece, trucked from the Midwest, was attractive because of its flexibility to mount the cutter head on a variety of pieces of equipment. Demonstrator, Mike Slattery, said the cutting teeth usually last 300 hours, but some users get up to 500 hours per set, depending on materials being cut. "It takes 10 minutes to change a tool and there’s a minimum of unplanned down time," he said. "We’re big on reputation in the fuels treatment industry and we use different standards to meet customer needs."

Walking Excavator
The Kaiser Spyder All-Terrain Walking Excavator mounted with a mastication head resembled an outer space vehicle and wowed the attendees with its ability to negotiate extremely steep slopes. According to operator Carl Liebelt, the rubber-tired four-wheel-drive unit can routinely work 70 to 80 percent slopes and can also work in water. The Kaiser has already found a niche with utility companies, and also does its share of streamside restoration projects. Its flexibility and mastication head made it highly maneuverable at the trials.

Carl Liebelt takes a break from the controls of the Kaiser Spyder

Also demonstrating was the ranger district’s own piece of equipment, a Clearwater Cable Yarder with Christy Carriage. Mounted on a converted military truck, the 25- foot tower has a skyline drum capacity of 800 feet of halfinch line and mainline drum capacity of 900 feet of 3/8-inch line. Markley said the yarder is used to log firewood, which is sold locally.

Portable Mills
Markley admitted that his dream sheet would be to find a way to turn the abundant wood waste into electrical power or something similar. He brought in four portable sawmills to demonstrate further alternatives — a Brand X (a new mill from Condon, Montana), a Wood-Mizer, a Lucas and an Economizer, each showing milling possibilities in the absence of an industrial sawmill. Noticeably absent was any cut-to-length system. Mason said the cut-to-length technology wasn’t a good fit in this instance. With few sawlogs coming from the Idaho City trials, the pre-determined emphasis was on chipping and recycling biomass. "I’m really biased toward production machines," said Mason. "But there’s also a place for smaller machines in sensitive habitats and residential areas. This is purely a research project and a technology transfer opportunity."

Rural Development Angles
Along with the equipment tour, was an army of policy makers and rural development personnel, each offering ideas and observations about the complex web of forest management. The quote of the day belonged to Mark Nechodom, a Forest Service researcher in social and policy sciences, who said, "It sometimes appears that the Forest Service is presiding over a sort of hospice program here in the West." He felt strongly that mechanized technology was the only way to address massive thinning needs across the West. "A couple of things are increasingly clear," said Nechodom. "While we’re busy figuring out what matters, the forests continue to grow in trajectories most of us don’t like, and those who know how to manage and do things in forests are going broke, leaving in despair, or stewing in unhealthy frustration as the forest management infrastructure collapses around them. We have a lot to do to negotiate a collective vision for the next chapter of forest management."

Biomass Buildup
Han-Sup Han, a timber harvesting and forest engineering specialist from the University of Idaho, discussed the issues with leaving huge amounts of biomass on the forest floor. "You have the same problems in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. There is no industry left, yet you have huge amounts of material coming out of the forest. What do we do with it? That’s the big dilemma, so we’re trying to pool information and see what’s available so we can share it with policy makers. We need to include all the stakeholders interested in solving the puzzle from stump to product." With the trials now complete, event coordinators Mason and Coulter will take the information they’ve collected and start crunching numbers. They believe the facts and figures gathered will furnish them with basic information that will help them predict some of the economics of the West’s overwhelming dry forest fuels reduction needs. With luck, the answers will come in before the fires.


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