By JOE RANKIN
Forests for Maine’s Future Writer
You could tell where George Merrill was working by the muted growl of the machinery. We picked our way down the slope on a packed double-track carpeted with hemlock boughs stripped from the trees he was cutting.
At the end of the trail, Merrill finished limbing and cutting up a hemlock. Then he drove forward and reached out to clasp another tall tree, sawed it off and picked it straight up. He turned 180 degrees and gently laid it down, sheared the branches off and cut it into 20-foot lengths. All within a couple of minutes. And all without leaving the heated cab of his machine.
Merrill had started thinning this 27-acre woodlot off Route 2 in East Wilton just this morning. But he was making good headway, despite deep snow, thanks to his 2010 model Cat 501 processor. “It’s working smarter, not harder,” Merrill said of his machine.
The sophisticated processor is one of several types of mechanical harvesting equipment first introduced in the state on the vast timberlands of northern Maine in the 1970s and 80s. Over the past two decades they have become common on smaller woodlots in the southern part of the state. Processors, forwarders, feller bunchers and grapple skidders have elbowed aside the chainsaw-cable skidder operators just as those once supplanted the ax-crosscut saw-horse team operations.
It is all part of the evolution of an industry.
The first whole tree mechanical harvesters were introduced in the 1980s, most of European design or based on it, said Dana Doran, the executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, whose 100 members are primarily mechanical logging contractors.
In the 1990s the equipment and designs proliferated, Doran said, driven by demand for wood and the rocketing cost of workers compensation insurance for chainsaw cutters doing a dangerous job. Today 80 percent of the 600 or so logging contractors in Maine are using mechanical harvesting, he said.
“They’re getting more sophisticated all the time,” said Doran of the machines. “They’re very technologically advanced. Most of the machines coming out have GPS technology, computer screens and interfacing between the processor and forester’s prescription for the cut.”
Technically, of course, a cable skidder is mechanical. Those big articulated tractors are meant to pull tree stems out of the woods after a chainsaw operator has felled and delimbed them. True mechanical harvesters do it all -- or at least do pieces of it. Here’s a primer on the various machines:
-- A feller-buncher cuts individual trees at stump height, bunches them, then sets the bunched stems down in a pile to be moved and processed later.
-- A grapple skidder is a big articulated tractor with an extendable claw-like appendage that can pick up the bunches of trees, lift them part way off the ground and take them to a processing site, where . . .
-- A whole tree processor/delimber uses a crane or log loader to pull the tree through a delimber. Then the operator measures and cuts it into logs of various lengths using a slasher saw. There are also stroke delimbers which can delimb and process a single stem or multiple stems at the same time.
-- A in-woods processor like Merrill’s CAT cut-to-length machine, has an arm topped by a cutter head and rollers and does the entire operation in the woods: felling, delimbing, measuring, cutting and piling the logs for . . .
-- A forwarder, a tracked or wheeled vehicle that picks up the logs with a loading boom and a bucket claw and sets them into its bed to ferry out to a landing.
-- A chipper, which is used to chew up the tops or entire trees and blow them into a box van.
Contractors use various combinations of equipment, depending on what the job calls for, what the landowner wants or what they can afford. But it’s likely that operators will have at least two, sometimes several of them.
In Manchester, Dana Poulin and his father Larry, of Gerard Poulin & Sons, were logging a 17-acre parcel that consisted of mostly young trees that would end up as pulpwood. Their feller buncher had already been through and laid down bunches of trees. Dana Poulin was using the dangle-head processor to delimb them and cut them to length. A forwarder would be used to take the trees out to the log yard and a chipper would be used to chip the tops and small trees.
Even though the father-son team had some duplication in his Tigercat dangle-head processor and feller buncher, Dana Poulin said he still likes the combination. It gave him versatility. A dangle-head processor is useful, he said, but the operator still needs to guide the tree in the direction he wants it to fall, almost as though he was felling it with a chainsaw.
The feller buncher, particularly, proves useful on dense stands of young trees that needed thinning, something that would be tedious to handle with a processor. “And it comes in handy when you’re clearing land. We did a field for a farmer that wanted it restored,” he said.
In New Gloucester Tom Cushman of Maine Custom Woodlands had a crew working on 110 acres. In the yard an operator at the controls of a crane pulled logs through a stationary processor/delimber, where knives sheared off the limbs. He then cut the stems into logs with a circular saw, piled the branches to be chipped later, and stacked the logs. Periodically a huge grapple skidder would lumber up the woods road trailing a huge load of trees, drop them at the processor and head back for more.
Cushman’s is a much larger operation. He’s got 21 employees, including himself. He has two foresters on staff who work with landowners. He’s got $5 million worth of equipment, including eight trucks. Maine Custom Woodlands does some 50 harvests a year, he said. Workers prep log yards and build roads for future harvests while others are ongoing.
Cushman, a forester himself, said he got into the logging business in 1993 and by 1998 was all mechanical. He’s never looked back. “With mechanical equipment I believe you can do better forestry and better silviculture,” he said.
Merrill started out with a chainsaw-cable skidder logging operation. He bought his first processor in 2002. It was $226,000. He had never used one and had to learn on the job. It took over a year to get good at it, he said. Merrill replaced that machine in 2010 with the $360,000 fixed-head CAT processor he’s using today. He also has a forwarder, a feller buncher, and a logging truck -- $1.2 million worth of machines.
“I think cut-to-length is the only way to go,” Merrill said. “It does a much better job for the residual stand.” The residual stand is what’s left after harvesting.
One of the big challenges for anyone wanting to make the leap from cable skidder-chainsaw operations to mechanical today is cost. The price of the machines has risen dramatically over the past decade, said Doran. These days a new grapple skidder can cost $325,000, a feller buncher up to $475,000, a dangle or fixed head processor $550,000 to $650,000, a forwarder around $400,000, a delimber-slasher $325,000 to $400,000 and chippers go from $150,000 to $500,000.
Of course, many contractors who move into mechanical do so with used equipment. “You can’t work down here (in southern Maine) and buy new equipment,” said Dana Poulin. “To buy that right there” -- he pointed to his Tigercat processor -- “a new Tigercat with a dangle head on it, would be over half a million dollars.”
Merrill, on the other hand, won’t buy used. “With used all you do is tinker,” he said.
There are other issues for mechanical operators in southern Maine. “Access is a huge challenge,” said Poulin. “A lot of people have nice woodlots, but sometimes you can’t get to them. Sometimes you can cross the abutters but, sometimes you can’t get permission.”
Acceptance is another. Tom Doak, the executive director of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, said many landowners are taken aback when a processor rolls off the truck, worrying what it will do to their land. “I think people are often shocked” by the size of the machine, he said.
But many woodlot owners find them fascinating, Doak said. He knows of one landowner who would take a cup of coffee and sit on a stump and watch the work. It became his entertainment. Landowners also discover that mechanical harvesting can be very low impact.
SWOAM owns 4,000 acres of forested land. It contracts with both chainsaw-cable skidder operators and mechanical contractors, depending on the parcel and the job. Many of the organization’s woodlots get lots of public use and in those cases mechanical harvesting with chipping of the slash is the best option, said Doak. Because dragging of trees is eliminated, cut-to-length systems have a very low impact, he said. “With mechanical harvesting you can remove some of that low quality wood, which is harder with a more conventional job.”
Merrill notes that his CAT fixed head process has a width on the tracks of eight feet, six inches and its boom can reach out over 20 feet to cut a tree. The cab, boom and head can pivot 360 degrees to place a tree exactly where he wants it. It can fit in narrow trails and because the fixed head allows for controlling felling there’s little chance of a cut tree getting snagged in other trees.
Andy Shultz, the landowner outreach forester for the Maine Forest Service, said it’s easier to avoid rutting up the ground with a forwarder and because a forwarder doesn’t drag trees it “should be easier to not damage standing trees because you don’t have to manage those five or six or 12 trees that you’re dragging behind you.”
That doesn’t mean that a chainsaw-cable skidder operator can’t do a good job, or that a mechanical operator can’t do a poor job, he emphasized. “These are all tools. And it’s best to have the best possible tool for the job. But it’s the person running the tool that’s more important than the machine.”
The secret, everyone agrees, lies not in the equipment, but who is operating it.
Poulin said, “It’s just paying attention to what you’re doing. Be aware of the residual stand, of not marking up trees that are future crop trees. Just being aware and caring about what you’re doing.”
Good operators are hard to find, however. Most contractors working cut-to-length processors in the woods learn on the job. But it’s not something you can learn overnight. Merrill said it took him a year and a half to get proficient with his first processor.
“It’s just paying attention,” he said. But it’s paying attention to many things at once. The trail, the stranding trees, working the joysticks, making sure the computer that cuts the logs to length is doing so accurately.
Doran said an experienced operator can make from $40,000 to $60,000 a year. “They’re very good wages and job for folks that get into the industry.” But it’s not a job for everybody. Contractors work long hours during the 36 to 40 week harvesting season -- generally the winter and the dry times of the year.
And not everybody can do the work. “Some people just don’t have the knack for it,” said Dana Poulin. “It’s nothing to do with strength. It’s more hand-eye coordination. Some people just don’t have it and you can tell rather quickly.”
“One of our biggest concerns as an industry is finding skilled operators of today’s mechanical logging equipment,” said Doran.
The Professional Logging Contractors of Maine is working working with Maine’s Community College System to set up a post-secondary training program. “Today’s operators are technicians and should be treated that way and have the same education,” Doran said. They should be trained in how to run and maintain the equipment, be familiar with best management practices and know basic silviculture, he added. The question is how to set up and fund a training program where the equipment so expensive.
SWOAM’s Doak said he thinks that “in the next 20 years you’ll see mechanical harvesting will be the norm in southern Maine and the equipment will continue to evolve to be smaller and more nimble.”
Merrill is glad he took the leap to mechanical harvesters, and all these years later he still gets a thrill out of operating his machine. “It doesn’t get old, I’ll say that. It’s different every day,” he said. “I like the outcome when it’s all done” and he sees a healthy woodlot with nicely spaced trees.
Joe Rankin writes on forestry, nature, and sustainability for Forests for Maine’s Future and other publications from his home and woodlot in central Maine.