March, 2001





No More Fighting Fire with Fire

WesSpur Tree Equipment demonstrates effectively to the Forest Service that machinery is a step toward healthier forests

By Peter Hill 


Rayco T275 tractor outfitted with a Rayco FM7290 forestry mower/muncher treats the forest floor to remove fuel loads thus lessening the impact of fire.

With the dawning of a new century comes an awakening of sorts. Decision makers at local, regional, and national levels are becoming aware that many of the nation's forests have been allowed to deteriorate into unhealthy, insect and disease ridden, plots of fiber subject to catastrophic fires. Worse, fires that are difficult to suppress, and that destroy trees and wildlife, ravage the ground itself, make regeneration a decades long process. 

Decision makers also becoming aware that the forests can be treated by utilizing a variety of existing technologies, many of them already in widespread use in the forest products industry. It's ironic that as the new millennium dawns, the timber industry, which took a beating in the final decades of the last millennium, is shaping up to be an important environmental tool in preserving the national forests for future

generations. Today, the Forest Service, working with private enterprise, other government agencies, and silvicultural scientists, is looking at a wide array of treatment options to rebuild a healthy system of diverse forests. They're finding, in many cases, the forest products industry already has the answers to at least some of the challenges. 

While little urgency was given to the matter until the firestorms of 2000 captured the nation's attention. Scientists, both within the Forest Service and outside, had long warned that the country's forests, especially those in the Western states, were at risk of catastrophic conflagration. In 1996's Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project (SNEP), C. Phillip Weatherspoon of the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Research Station in Redding, California wrote, "...virtual exclusion of law and moderate-severity fire has profoundly affected the structure and composition of most Sierra Nevada vegetation, especially in low-to middleelevation forests ." 

Sub-soil mulching makes it look like a park.

The result, he said, was that fires today are much more likely than they were in the past to be large and severe when they do occur. In cooperation with a colleague at the Research Station, Carl N. Skinner, Weatherspoon addressed SNEP on what needed to be done in the forests to recapture their health saying, "In general, conditions need to be moved away from dense, small tree dominated forests toward more open, large tree dominated forests. And the rate of treatment needs to be carefully planned; in the short term, rates of biomass removal may well need to exceed rates of production in order to return these forests to a more sustainable, fire resilient condition ."

Moving conditions away from dense, small tree dominated forests toward more open, large tree dominated forests requires, Weatherspoon told TimberWest recently, a variety of silvicultural techniques including fire, ground treatment, and harvest. While cautioning that each forested area needs to be analyzed individually to determine proper treatment techniques Weatherspoon said that "Cuttings and mechanical treatments are generally better for changing stand structure than fire ." In a forest that is dominated by small trees and brush, he pointed out, fire is difficult to control while mechanical methodologies offer "a good deal of precision ." 

Weatherspoon emphasized that no one should believe that any one technology is the panacea for the forest but, he conceded, mechanical treatments are certainly one very important methodology that will certainly play a big part in restoring the Western forest to health. In the late 1990s, disturbed by the findings of men like Weatherspoon and other silvicultural experts, Congress asked the General Accounting Office to investigate the state of the western forest. 

The resulting report, published in 1999 both supported the findings of the scientists, stating, "The most extensive and serious problem related to the health of national forests in the interior West is the over accumulation of vegetation, which as caused an increasing number of large, intense, uncontrollable, and catastrophically destructive wildfires," and sounded the alarm commenting that, "Experts have estimated that a window of only 10 to 25 years is available for taking effective action before widespread, long-term damage from such fires occurs ." In October of 2000, the Forest Service issued a report detailing its strategy for preserving the fire threatened wilderness. 

The strategy in part, according to the Service's new document, Protecting People and Sustaining Resources in Fire Adapted Ecosystems A Cohesive Strategy, will rely, "...on a variety of treatments, including  thinning, some harvest, other mechanical treatments, and prescribed burning, to reduce fuels and the consequent risks of loss or long lasting damage resulting from wildland fire ." For those in the timber industry, using machinery to improve forest health is far from a new idea. Far sighted companies in the industry have been treating private forests for years. And the equipment necessary to accomplish the task both exists and has been proven effective. 

One company leading the way in treatment technology is WesSpur L.L.C. Tree Equipment, a Pacific Northwest company with offices in Bellingham and Sumner, Wash., and in Portland, Ore. Pres. Andy McMurry, is "all fired up" over the new line of forestry mower/mulcher equipment his company is introducing throughout the West Coast, Western Canada, and Alaska. Andy, after a career in the timber industry that included being a timber cutter, a log buyer, and 20 years in the helicopter logging business, purchased WesSpur as a machinery dealership three years ago. Since then he has expanded the company by building and upgrading its facilities - adding a new facility in Bellingham, introducing a new store in Summer, and upgrading the Portland facility. 

What has McMurry so enthused is the potential for using equipment like his firm's Rayco T275 tractor outfitted with a Rayco FM7260 forestry mower/mulcher to treat the forest for fire suppression. He recently demonstrated the technology for the Forest Service with what he calls, "Excellent results ." Rayco's T275 was originally developed to prepare logged sites for reforestation or to clear land for property development. With the recent emphasis on fuel load reduction in standing forests, Andy says, it seemed to be an ideal application for the machine which had already proven itself in site prep work for developers. The machine is a heavy-duty unit powered by a John Deere 275 hp motor. 

At just 9 feet in width, the machine is, according to Andy, maneuverable and efficient. Mounted with a Rayco FM7260 Forestry Mower/ Mulcher the T275 is, Andy believes, ideal for the kind of fuel load reduction the Forest Service wants in its forests. Because it is a rotor style mower, the FM7260 does not project material sideways, an important aspect in a forest being treated where residual trees must be left behind unharmed. Eighty-six fixed, carbide tipped cutter tools grind unwanted vegetation down into a mulch that, left on the forest floor, provides nutrient while removing the potential for catastrophic fire in the forest. 

In 2000, Andy had the opportunity to put on two demonstrations for the National Forest Service in California using the T275 with its mower/mulcher attachment. The first demonstration, in the Stanislaus National Forest near Shaver Lake in Northern California, actually was done as a soil study, with the primary purpose being to test different ways to accelerate the introduction of carbon back into the forest soil. Forest Service personnel were given a first hand look at the capability of the machine for large scale forestry mowing and site preparation. Andy says, "The T275 easily mowed down and pulverized trees in the 20 inch diameter range ." This actually is in excess of the machines optimum rated operating range of 8 to10 inch diameter trees. 

The machines operating efficiency and its rate of mowing down standing trees and underbrush and reducing it to mulch so impressed forest service personnel that Andy was invited back for a second demonstration in the Eldorado National Forest, also in Northern California. In this situation, according to Andy, the focus of the demonstration was on using the equipment for fuel reduction and the removal of unwanted brush and competing species growing in the plantations. "The turnout for this 3day demonstration was great," Andy says. "We had a least two dozen foresters from all over the area observing the test. 

Many were interested in fuel reduction management techniques and the removal of competing species. The management technique we used in this situation was to go into standing timber and take down the under story. The material we took down would then be allowed to stay for a certain time and then the forest service would come in and do a controlled burn. Here's a situation were we are using both mechanical and controlled burn management methods ." And Andy adds, "Working in heavy brush and with trees between 4 to 10 feet tall and up to 10 inches in diameter. We processed on an average, one acre an hour ." 

The demonstration, Andy says, impressed the viewers. "Obviously," he pointed out, "A lot of people with different interests in the machines capability were looking at how versatile it was - the more versatile and the more things the machine can do, the better they like it. This piece of equipment was only introduced within the last year on the West Coast but it already has been in use in Chile, Argentina, and Australia. When you look at the overall picture, one man with this machine on a tiltbed can accomplish quit a lot ." After the demo, Andy reports, "Not one negative comment was received ." 

The timber industry is destined to play an important part in restoring the American forest back to health. As Andy McMurry has shown, much of the work, from harvest to ground preparation, can be done with equipment already on dealer's parking lots. The Forest Service has indicated it wants to move forward. Now it is up to the industry to respond as Andy has in demonstrating that the industry has the know how an the wherewithal to do the job efficiently and well.


This page was last updated on Monday, November 10, 2003