March and April 2006




L&L banks on cut-to-length for the future

By Barbara Coyner

As western Montana’s Bitterroot Valley went up in smoke in 2000, the region became a national poster child for wildfire hazard reduction work. Louis and Lori Mann watched it all, as they considered their logging future around Philipsburg. In 2001, when Louis traveled to Scandinavia’s Elmia in the Woods, he brought home new ideas about logging equipment and biomass utilization. “That’s when he got the dream,” Lori Mann says. “The Fuels for Schools program started up after the big fires, and Louis wanted to be part of things. He wants to heat the whole town of Philipsburg with wood, and people are pretty excited about it.”

Big dreams require big machines in this instance, and Louis saw cut-to-length equipment in his future. A demonstration provided the show-and-tell that helped him decide. “It was a critical time for us,” says Louis, who grew up working in the woods. “The Louisiana Pacific mill we’d worked with was changing hands and with that there was less need for standard loggers, so I saw cut-to-length as the only way to go if I was going to stay in logging. I went to a demo in Minnesota in ’04 to watch the Ponsse equipment, and bought two machines that day. Cost was not the only issue. You need a machine with up time and you need that product support. At first they didn’t want to sell to me, because they didn’t have product support yet in this area.” Nevertheless, Louis’s friend Bob Lanford, a retired Auburn University forestry professor, supported the Ponsse purchases after seeing the company’s track record in the South.

Left to right: Ponsse representative Miika Eskelinen of Wisconsin, operator Louis Mann and Lucas Sliper, parts supervisor for Interstate Power Systems of Missoula.

With a new Ponsse Ergo harvester, sporting the H73 head, and a Buffalo eight-wheel forwarder, Louis and oldest son Terry immediately put the high-tech Finnish equipment to the test. Because there were no service departments or parts distribution centers located in the area, Mann relied on his own mechanic skills and a fully equipped service truck for repairs, but he’s seen no downtime on his jobs so far and he’s got only good things to say.


Top Marks for Ponsse

“The cab is great and has heated seats, plus it’s roomy and quiet and climate-controlled,” he says, easily maneuvering about on rubber tires with a set of tracks installed over them. With a spare set of tracks available, he says his son Ted keeps each set maintained and ready when a switch is required. “We use the tracks year-round, both for traction and flotation. With the soft ground, there’s little ground pressure so the tracks perform better. The boom reaches out about 30 feet and the cab is really stable. I’ve doubled production in a year, and with cut-to-length, there’s less ground disturbance and more nutrients left on the ground. Another thing is that I’m using about 50 percent of the fuel I used to use. That’s due to the efficiency of the engine and the computer system.”

The trademark Ponsse computer system, dubbed Opti-Control, took about four or five months to learn fluently, and the Windows XP-based system even allows for tech support via cyberspace connections. “I had a computer problem the other day and a guy just talked me through it and it was fixed in 10 minutes,” Louis says. “This is some of the best technology in the world, but the technology is so new, some people are afraid of it. This system is virtually unknown in our area. People just don’t understand what we have at our fingertips. This computer monitors board feet, species and output in terms of studs, pulp and poles. The machine cuts trees from 2” to 20” diameter and it’s accurate. The archive feature is really nice, too, and I can look up any harvest site from the past. I worked here a year ago and I could access price lists and board feet. It saved me 45 minutes.”

Mann likes the ease of maintenance on the head and keeps the equipment greased regularly. Saw chains change in a matter of minutes. Details like a good fire suppression system and emergency shutdown safeguards also contribute to the mix, and Mann seems a happy camper. He notes that the similar computerized features on the Buffalo forwarder, its maneuverability and flexibility, interface well with the harvester. “I could probably overwhelm myself with what all is on this computer,” Louis concedes. “The information is that detailed.”

Because the harvester and forwarder don’t always keep the same pace, Mann opted for a used Buffalo Dual more recently [the Dual can function as either a harvester or forwarder]. Tom Armstrong and son Ted trade off on forwarder chores, but oldest son Terry is the sole pilot of the Dual. Working on a private job near Georgetown Lake, Terry has more than good forestry and thinning to consider as he cuts.

Challenging Opportunity

The upscale lots are being prepped by Resource Specialties of Clinton, Mont., with additional guidance from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. As Resource Specialties owner Rich Blaney explains, “We’re asking Terry to do something different here and it’s pretty impressive.” Hired by Washington Development Corporation, Blaney and state forester Chris Town want L&L to thin for fire hazard reduction, but still leave plenty of trees for privacy screening on the lake view lots. “This is really challenging because aesthetics are as important as forestry on this job,” says Blaney. “We want to improve forest health, but not make this look like a plantation. We want it to look like a forest and that’s why it’s important to work with Terry everyday. We want random spacing and meandering trails.” Chris Town notes that doing the work on the sites before infrastructure installation and building take place is much cheaper, and such treatment averages about $1,800 per acre.

Louis Mann in the cab of the Ponsse Ergo harvester, using the Opti-Control computer system.

In the cab of the Buffalo Dual, Terry Mann cuts on the basis of appearance, leaving some character trees, while harvesting a variety of pulp, poles and saw logs. As a harvester, the Ponsse Dual presents different challenges, Terry admits.

Louis Mann operates the Ponsse Ergo harvester with H73 head while doing a thinning job on private land near Lincoln, Mont.

“On the Dual, the boom is closer, and the frame sticks out more, making it different to use than the harvester my dad runs. Maneuverability isn’t a big issue, but getting the head closer to the ground takes some practice. It’s not as much of an issue now that I’ve learned to run it. This machine has high production, and it’s a quick changeover to forwarder, so it doesn’t cut into production time. At the demonstration, a guy did a record changeover of nine minutes on this machine, but I broke that, doing it in eight. Because this machine can both harvest and forward, it’s a good one to have on this job.”

Cutting in tight spaces, Terry makes the Dual look like a rodeo machine, and both Blaney and Town praise the double- function machine for its ability to space trees and not do damage to residual trees. With the exclusive building lots priced at well over $200,000 in some cases, the two forest specialists monitor Terry’s work carefully. In addition to the H53 head on the Dual, L&L brandishes an EH25 energy wood head for some work. The special sheers allow the operator to handle biomass with more flexibility. The EH25 head is the only one currently running in the U.S.

Working Toward Biomass Processing

Sold on the Ponsse machines, Louis Mann sees a chipper in his future as he works on the details of biomass processing. Happily, Ponsse representative Miika Eskelinen has lined up Interstate Companies, Inc. out of Missoula for parts and service. It was a natural progression, Eskelinen says, noting that the company has long serviced Mercedes-Benz engines, which come standard on Ponsse machines.

“Cut-to-length is all about do it right or don’t do it at all,” says Louis Mann. “As long as I have work for these machines, I’ll do well.” With the Philipsburg School now heated with wood, Mann sees upcoming opportunities to furnish clean, non-skidded wood to the community, and perhaps someday, heat more buildings in the historic mining town with the woody biomass currently cluttering western Montana’s overstocked forests.




This page was last updated on Tuesday, September 19, 2006