The Cutting Edge
Technological advances are making logging safer,
more precise, and better for the planet.
Illustration by George Giavasis (Highline Design Co.)
STORY BY KATIE CANTRELL
“T he cab of a John Deere 959MH harvester looks like an elaborate gaming setup, with joystick controllers covered in tiny buttons extending from the left and right armrests.
There’s no steering wheel at all, although honestly, driving through the woods is the least impressive thing this cut-to-length timber harvester does. Controlled solely by the joysticks and a computer screen, the machine has a robotic arm that looks like something Optimus Prime would use to defeat its enemies. It grabs a standing tree and slices through the base, flips it sideways and strips the branches, zips the log back through to measure its length and diameter, and then compares that information to the lumber mill’s purchase specifications, allowing the logger to cut the tree into a pile of logs of maximal value. The logger then marks the location of that pile on a touchscreen map so the person bringing them out of the woods doesn’t miss them, even if it dumps two feet of snow overnight.
Forget chainsaws and “Timberrrr!” This is how today’s loggers harvest trees.
A cut-to-length harvester and a forwarder—a machine that picks up the logs and drives them from the forest to the logging truck—reduce the number of machines in a logging setup from four to two. Traditionally, a feller buncher would cut trees, then a skidder would pull them out of the woods, branches and all, to a landing site. There, the processor would strip the branches and cut the logs, then a log loader would stack them, first on the ground, then onto the logging truck.
On steep slopes, the harvester and forwarder can now do the work of an 8-man crew, no longer requiring loggers to set up an elaborate overhead cable system or risk their safety by hand-felling trees on steep hillsides.
Technological advances are also helping loggers minimize waste and maximize accuracy. RDO Equipment in Kalispell sells a shiny orange fixed-wing drone with a four-foot wingspan that has applications for many industries. For a logger’s purposes, it can map a stand of timber in six hours that would take a ground crew three weeks to complete, producing a map detailing the exact location, height, and diameter of individual trees.
When computer files are converted to maps on a machine’s touchscreen, loggers can see exactly where they are in relation to the required boundaries around streams and other sensitive areas—no more relying on flagging tape tied to trees. The maps also change the machine’s forest path from green to red when it has traveled back and forth over the same ground too many times for the health of the forest floor.
“Figure out what you’re going to do with your slash and the rest of it comes together.”
In contrast to traditional logging setups, where whole trees are dragged out of the woods to be delimbed at the landing site, cut-to-length harvesters strip off the branches as they cut each tree. Those branches fall on the forest floor and act as a protective mat as the machine drives forward, protecting the soil and reducing the piles of slash—the debris that remains when a tree becomes a log—left behind. Which is important, because dealing with slash is one of a logger’s constant challenges.
“I could easily fill half this room in a day with slash,” says Tai Foley, gesturing around a good-sized conference room at Kalispell’s Hampton Inn during a day-long meeting of the Montana Logging Association focused on new equipment and technology in the industry. Foley, whose grandfather owned a lumber mill in Martin City, says an old logging maxim is, “Figure out what you’re going to do with your slash and the rest of it comes together.”
Burning is often the default solution for slash, though not necessarily a good one: large slash piles can smolder all year long, even through winter, filling the sky with smoke and pollution and leaving burn scars on the land that last for decades. Technology’s answer? Air curtain burners. Instead of open burning, the slash goes into a large metal box, like a construction dumpster. A blower shoots air diagonally over the top of the fire, creating an “air curtain” that traps smoke particles inside the burner, recirculating them until they burn up completely. Nick Brown, who presented on his experience with air curtain burners at the meeting, recounted burning slash for 10 hours in Great Falls “right by the busiest highway in Montana” without receiving a single complaint call. Nothing rose from the burner except shimmering heat rays.
One thing technology hasn’t been able to do is recruit more young loggers. At the logging association meeting, a room full of ball-cap-clad heads nodded their agreement when someone mentioned “the elephant in the room”: Workforce shortages. For one reason or another—better paying jobs in construction, the decline of generational logging families—fewer people are going into logging. As a result, these technological advances that might at first seem to be a negative—drones eliminating surveying crews and two machines doing the work of four or more—are actually the only things that allow some logging operations to stay in business.
The world needs wood. Loggers are doing their best to provide that resource while also recognizing the need to minimize pollution and environmental impacts, keeping forests healthy for generations to come. As Tim McEntire, the northwest Montana representative to the Montana Logging Association, says:
“If there’s anyone who wants to see a tree grow, it’s a logger.”
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