Morbark, LLC

New order fra`s national outstanding logger performs stewardship logging in the Sierras

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Courtesy of Courtesy of Morbark, LLC

Terri Simon-Jackson, District Ranger of the Mt. Hough Ranger District of California's Plumas National Forest, speaks to the new order of National Forest management and how it has changed in the last few years:

'It's really not all that important what you take off the land. What really is important right now is what you leave behind. (Contractor) Randy Pew epitomizes that. He's made a good transition to forest stewardship. He has retooled his business. He has hired people who understand the goals. He really cares for the land. He's a good listener. He understands all resource and environmental concerns. The skills he brings to National Forest management are essential to our focus: leaving good, healthy, resilient forests for future generations.'

For all these reasons and more, Pew, 47, owner of Pew Forest Products (PFP), Crescent Mills, Calif., last month was recognized as the Forest Resources Assn.'s National Outstanding Logger. He is the 12th logger to be so honored by FRA's panel of 25 industry and conservation judges.

In the overgrown thicket of forest management in California, where overstocked stands and public policy trends are equally combustible, the ability to listen intently is a distinguishable mark of an outstanding logger.

Pew has been a logger more than half his life. Son and grandson of sawmillers who worked seasonally in the woods, he knows what 'community' means. In the fire-prone, fire-dependent area where he lives, being a logger means more than helping supply a mill or sustaining a fragile economy. It means something even closer to the survival of a community. It means confronting the threat of wildfire. In his section of Plumas NF, says pew, 'every year we burn about 100,000 acres close enough to my home that you can see the smoke. I have a real concern about our family, our home, and the community I live in.' He continues: 'Thinning the forest has proved to be the answer to that problem.'

Until a few years ago, PFP was primarily a salvage logging business which, in view of the fire ecology in that part of the Sierra Nevadas, seemed to be a fit. However, as owl-protection litigation descended on the Northwest, undermining the multiple-use doctrine, the FS began offering fewer salvage sales.

In the late '90s, with the development of the Quincy Library Group process for managing federal forests in the region, Pew began settling on a new niche: the 'forest stewardship contract.'

Previously, the FS had just two ways of doing business: timber sale/harvest contracts and service contracts, such as a pre-commercial thinning to eliminate fuel ladders or otherwise reduce on-site biomass. 'The idea behind the stewardship contract is putting the both of them together, making it where they can get all the work done in one entry. This is apparently better for the resource,' Pew explains.

Although the job may not go to the lowest bidder - the agency evaluates loggers' proposals on merits of quality - a stewardship contract gives a logger an opportunity to diversify his risk by supplementing the straight 'per-acre' fee by selling whatever his contract allows (requires) him to remove. (Read sawtimber; pulpwood and a great deal of biomass fiber for fuel.)

The most important products, however, are stand improvement and, for the community, fire protection. These treatments create beautifully spaced stands of sawtimber which, ironically, will probably never be harvested. It ultimately will be 'thinned from below' with the carefully controlled use of fire, according to Simon-Jackson.

To succeed with a stewardship contract, a logger must provide assurances of quality work - zero or near-zero stand damage and adherence to very extracting environmental specs - and still make something off timber that was marked for reasons other than its value. Hauling a load of biomass fuel may cost more that the value of the product. Rather than riding on the day's last load in, the logger's profit may ride on the load he doesn't haul.

Before Pew bids on any contract, he must make a use calculation of unusual complexity. He must not only know his volumes and markets but understand and account for special site conditions, as well as the cost of being idle due to high fire risk, weather conditions or when he consults with an agency. With his move from salvage work to fuel-reduction stewardship contracts, he made a $1.2 million equipment retooling investment in 1998.

PFP typically runs two crews; a chipping crew works stewardship contracts. Combined, PFP's machinery includes a 1995 Morbark 6036 chipper; two Timbco feller-bunchers, a 1996 435 and a '98 425; a 1998 Timberjack 635 shovel logger; a 1998 Timberjack 635 carrier for a Denharco 3500 stroke delimber; four Caterpillar grapple skidders; a 1996 Timberjack 450 skidder; '96 Cat D5H with ESCO grapple; '94 Cat D4H; and a '94 Cat 936 front-end loader.

Ancillary equipment includes three Peterbilt tractors; three Peerless chip vans; three Page logging dollies; three 500 gallon Mallory fire pumper trucks; two trucks for watering roads; '99 Ford 550 service truck; and seven crew trucks. California requires the pumpers in case a fire breaks out Also, Pew reports his contract with the FS requires him to help fight nearby fire outbreaks, although he has gone beyond those requirements in the past.

On top of the ability to understand every aspect of the project in hand as part of an integrated whole, what is behind Pew's success?

His commitment to employees stands out. 'We pay high wages, because we don't have a choice,' he says. 'We normally have very little turnover, and we've been able to keep people, one for 22 years.' His commitment to PFP's 23 employees is clear in an explicit safety Policy Statement showing his characteristic sense of integrated management. The statement reminds employees that pain, suffering, and loss underlie any concern for safety, but also that the entire survival of the business and everyone's livelihood ultimately depend on it. Accidents and the possibility of accidents are competitiveness issues. The statement offers a guarantee that supervisors and Pew himself will encourage communication about hazards 'without fear of reprisal' and in the end links safety success to efficiency. As a result, PFW has the second lowest Worker's Comp mod factor of any business in its category in the state.

What about public outreach? 'Yeah, I've talked to the Sierra Club and survived,' Pew says with a chuckle. 'I wanted to be in the Sierra Club and find members' point of view and show them mine. Other than the professional environmentalists that were there, most of the people understood. They had concerns as they looked at pictures of our work and how we did it. But, in general, they understood, and they know something has to be done.'

Pew estimates that he's spoken to at least 40 different groups in the past two years, almost always finding a receptive audience. He frequently hosts groups of local school kids and teachers to view his work and question him and his crew about it. Yale's Forestry School has also sent a group.

His operations have been the subject of a sympathetic article in the Los Angeles Times and have been included in a History Channel segment. This logger believes in putting his work in the spotlight and manages those opportunities well.

Moreover, he's there for Log A Load For kids. 'Many times over the past three years, his generosity and help have seen us through a long list of parades, two television pilots, and three statewide campaigns,' writes California's Log A Load Co-Chair Charlotte Smith. 'When asked to pull equipment off a logging sale for our fundraising needs, Randy never says no.'

As to PFP's future, Pew's two teenage sons, Jared and Tyler, expect to be working in the business when they've finished their educations. Jared, completing his first year at the Cal State campus at nearby Chico, continues working summers for his father, learning the job from the bottom up. He says he prefers chain saw work to running harvesters, but he knows well what direction logging in federal timber in the Sierras is headed. He used his father's work on the 2,000-acre hungry Creek fuel-reduction project in 1999 - the prototype Quincy Library Group thinning - as the basis for his senior project in high school.

But even with the 'stewardship contract' paradigm, and with the urgent and possibly long-term energy crisis in California, which promises growth and perhaps breakeven prices in the biomass market, Pew faces profound uncertainties about the future of his business and his community. This January, under threat of litigation, the FS suspended its Sierra Nevada forest plan, leaving loggers like Pew (and their co-gen customers) with an abrupt shortage of opportunities. It remains to be seen if those opportunities will re-emerge.

Here's one example of such uncertainty. Pew says a timber stand on public land near his community burned about 30 to 40 tons of fuel per acre during a recent wildfire. The FS, for whatever reason, will not authorize salvage. 'Next time, we'll be talking about catastrophic fires, where everything burns,' he observes. 'When they get through falling over and rotting, and dying, when all those snags come down, and the brush comes up with no trees in it, and it burns the next time, that'll be 250 or 300 tons per acre. That'll scorch the ground and make it non-productive forever.'

He continues: 'But forget harvesting, jobs and communities and the aesthetics. We're not reforesting it. And if it's wildlife concerns that are driving all of this, why in the world wouldn't we be back up there, taking that wood out, and removing that fuel, and reforesting it? It doesn't make any sense. If old growth timber is the habitat we're after, the sooner we reforest those burns, the sooner we'll get to that old growth timber.'

To a man with three generations of roots in the community and a two-year-old investment of $1.2 million, the future of management on the Plumas is something to ponder.

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