Southern Wis. Logger Seriously Organized: Scott Olson Sweats the Details

BY DAVE JOHNSON

If it's possible to describe a person with just one word, that word for Scott Olson would be organized. It's a word he uses over and over in the course of a conversation, but even if he never uttered it, it's the first word that would come to your mind if you watched his operation for any  length of time. It all comes down to organization for Olson. He says he goes to bed thinking about it and wakes up thinking about it. He says there's never been a day where he didn't want to go to work.

The Northern Logger visited the logger on a hilly red pine thinning in Southwestern Wisconsin near the town of Spring Green, about an hour from his home base of Monroe. He and his crew work five 12-hour days a week, staying in local motels with a trip home every Wednesday. On this second thinning they were cutting pulpwood, bound for International Paper's mill in Kaukauna, about a 250-mile round trip. The crew in his cut-to-length operation averages 65 cords a day in wood like this. The truckers make two round trips per day.

Unlike pulp haulers in the North, Olson loads his sticks the long way. His 48-foot semi trailers hold four rows of 100inch pulpwood, or 3 rows of 12-foot sawlogs. He loads with his forwarders, two Timberjack double bunk machines, a 1210 and a 1410D. It takes slightly more than two trips with a forwarder to complete a 30-ton semi load. His trucks used to be fitted with loaders, but he says that not only does the weight of a loader subtract more than a cord of wood from each load, the loaders cost around $30,000 each and are just riding around idle most of the time. That's the kind of thing Olson won't stand for.

By loading the long way, he eliminates the need for straightening the load by banging in protruding sticks, thus saving time. If you asked him he could probably tell you how much time is saved and what that adds up to over a year.

Olson is 33 years old and was raised on a farm. He got his start in the wood business cutting firewood. He became interested in logging and spent some time going around observing mechanized wood harvesting operations. He says he was amazed at how disorganized most of them seemed to be. With no more experience than his high school firewood venture, he became convinced that by becoming organized, there would be money to be made in logging. He thought he could see many places where time and effort were wasted. It occurred to him that if the guys he watched could make a living working in the disorganized manner they were, an organized guy like him could do well. And he has.

Olson has no time for sloppy operations. His machinery is immaculate. His semi trailers are finished with the same finish as the tractors. His forwarders and his Valmet 911C harvester are swept out every morning and the windows all washed. He won't tolerate greasy handprints on the doors nor leaking fittings. When the crew leaves at night, the machines are lined up in a row. When they drive off in the morning, there are no oil stains on the ground where they spent the night.

Olson says his wood only hits the ground once and that is when the harvester drops it in piles in the woods. From then on, it's on rubber and moving toward the mill. Olson says the two forwarders are a good match for the one harvester. Usually they are right on the tail of the harvester, but it doesn't bother him if the harvester gets a bit ahead. Since Olson operates one of the forwarders himself, that can happen if he is off on other business. The whole operation is coordinated with radios. The three operators in the woods are constantly talking to each other. The truckers pull in empty and immediately hook onto a full trailer and pull out with another full load. It's efficient and it's organized.

Olson speaks well of his equipment, especially the Timberjacks. Possibly because of his farm background, he say he has faith in John Deere equipment. He says the company will always be around. He likes the Valmet harvester too, but had a recent stretch of downtime (two days) waiting for a part. Olson can tell you exactly what that cost in wages, workers comp. insurance, interest etc. with no production to show for it. Back in his mobile support unit trailer, Olson picks up a wrench from a table and says, "The lack of this wrench could cost me a day's production." To be sure that doesn't happen, the trailer has complete sets of both standard and metric sockets and combination wrenches plus an air compressor, welding machine and a complete first aid kit, as well as two wastebaskets.

Olson's meticulous nature and the training and skill of his crew shows up in the woods as well. The trees he was harvesting are not marked. The harvester operator, Gene Mickelson, makes the selections as he goes along. In spite of this, Olson has had no complaints from either the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) or the landowners he's worked for. Olson's crew is not cross-trained. Each guy operates his one machine all the time. Like others The Northern Logger has visited in this part of the state, Olson has had no experience with Green Certification or the Master Logger Program.

If Olson runs across large trees, and there are some large pine and popple (aspen) in the area, he subcontracts any hand felling, a lot of it to his friend, local logger Mike Neta.

Even though there is an awful lot of production going on, the atmosphere in the woods and on the landing is calm and orderly. No snorting engines or racing vehicles. Everything runs smoothly. It's, well……-organized. After the trucker, (he's called "Broadway Bob" but says he has no idea why), tightens his straps on his way out, he walks all around his rig and assures himself all is well before he sets out on the road.
Olson buys timber in about all the ways you can imagine. He does all his own buying, having had bad experiences with timber buyers in the past. "My name is on every contract" He says, "And it's my money I'm spending." If the deal involves land, he will buy the land, do the logging and then sell the land.

The terrain where he works most months is rugged. He says loggers will come down from Northern Wisconsin and out-bid him for jobs, thinking they can average 60 or 70 cords a day like they do back home. He says he just waits until the hills knock that average down to about 30 cords a day then he can buy up the contract.

Olson has no complaints about stumpage prices, markets or much else for that matter. His biggest problem is nature itself. And it is not just the weather but also things like oak wilt that causes the DNR to prohibit logging in stands containing red oak from April 15 to August 15 every year.
As to the future, he sees a shortage of wood developing, because fewer loggers will be available to supply it. While he is not complaining about his treatment by procurement foresters, he does feel that if the pulp companies would spend less money on schemes to import fiber and reward guys like him with a bit more money, it would pay off for everyone.

Footnote: A few years ago the Swedes conducted a study on the efficiency of cut-to-length harvester operators. They found that the best operators planned their work three trees ahead and rarely ran their machines in reverse gear. That's the kind of statistic that Scott Olson understands and puts into practice on his logging jobs.