Feature Articles 2017-10-16T23:46:54+00:00

Feature Articles

Hands-On Learning at Paul Smith’s Summer School of Logging

By Steve Bjerklie

Alex and Jared, in helmets, chaps, and t-shirts damp with sweat, assess the yellow birch standing between them before they fire up a chainsaw. The tree, a bit on the small side but still capable of producing good lumber, leans away from the direction they want it to fall. “Couple wedges, then?” Alex asks and Jared nods as he yanks the chainsaw’s starter cord. Ear covers come down from the helmets, and Jared cuts an open-face notch on the uphill side of the trunk. Then he cuts in the bore; the tree is small enough he can make the cut from one side. Alex moves in with the wedges, carefully positioning them to force the tree’s fall into the spot the two young men have designated. Finally, Jared cuts the trigger, Alex gives the tree a slight push and down it comes, falling through the air in what seems like slow motion, with the grace of a gliding feather.

It’s a textbook felling. Alex and Dylan have learned well, and their teacher, Dave Falkenham, forest manager at Paul Smith’s College in Paul Smith’s, N.Y., smiles at their work.

“Hand-cutting is a thrill,” Alex admits after the saw is shut down, while Jared looks over the newly felled tree. “I definitely like the hands-on part of this.”

Alex and Jared, along with 15 other young men ages 17-19, are members of the first class of the Paul Smith’s College Summer School of Logging, a four-week program that brings vocational-technical students into the woods to give them a taste of life as a logger. They’re instructed in everything from proper felling technique to running a feller-buncher and grapple-skidder – and they learn while using equipment on a real timber sale. It’s the first program of its kind in New York state.

The students come from all over New York; Alex is from Walton, N.Y., east of Binghamton, and Jared comes from Downsville, not far from Walton. Except for one student from Pennsylvania, all the Summer School of Logging students came out of New York state’s BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services) vo-tech program, and in order to be considered for the program they had to complete at least Logging Level 1 at BOCES. The tuition for the School is $1,500 for the four-week session, but $1,000 of that is covered by grant-supported scholarships.

“I want to expose these kids to the aspects, to the feeling, of logging,” says Dave, who, in his logger’s safety helmet and bright orange Stihl t-shirt, doesn’t seem like a college professor. “Timber harvesting is really ratcheting up here, and if the program can produce two or three good future employees for the companies in our area, then that’s one measure of success.” At the end of four weeks, every graduating student is fully certified in level 2 Game of Logging training (Paul Smith’s College is a Game of Logging franchisee), and the College has been able to arrange for 10 three-month internships with area loggers for the Summer School’s graduates. Perhaps more important, by the time of graduation every student knows, from real-world experience, whether logging and working in the woods is the life for them.

Paul Smith’s College has long been well-known for its forestry program, but the new Summer School of Logging focuses exclusively on logging and timber harvesting. While the curriculum includes some classroom instruction in silviculture and forest ecology, as well as in first aid and CPR, the emphasis is on proper and safe use of machinery and tools to fell trees for lumber and firewood. In the programs first couple of days, the students are divided into teams of two and three, and out in the woods these teams are put to work on the feller-buncher, the grapple skidder, and with chainsaws. There’s some preparatory instruction on a feller-buncher simulator, but for the most part the learning is hands-on for each student.

“They learn pretty quickly which are the easier jobs,” laughs Dave. “At the end of the day, the hand-felling crews are dirty and drenched in sweat while the guys who were in the air-conditioned feller-buncher wonder what’s the problem.” He adds that at the beginning, he thought running the feller-buncher “would have the most fans, but it turned out that these kids thought driving the grapple skidder was like a ride at the fair. And there are some of our students who just really like hand-felling” – Alex, for one. “Everyone is able to find their niche, and they learn that it takes all of them for a logging operation to be successful.”

The Summer School of Logging has been a dream at Paul Smith’s College at least since 2015. Finding faculty and making the economics work were the big challenges to getting the program off the ground. Two grants, one from the New York Department of Labor and another from the Workforce Development Institute, helped with financial support. (State Senator Betty Little, who provided valuable assistance in securing the Dept. of Labor grant, visited the Summer School of Logging the day before graduation.) A business plan and the curriculum were put together by Dr. Steve Bick of Northeast Forests LLC. The College owns a log-loader and a John Deere 440D skidder, and C.J. Logging Equipment of Boonville, N.Y., supplied a new Tigercat log-loader/de-limber. A grant from Stihl helped purchase several chainsaws.

The linchpin was Tim O’Neill and his company, O’Neill Brothers Logging. Tim not only supplied the feller-buncher and a grapple skidder, his crew served as in-field instructors. Since summer can be a busy season for loggers, Dave says the key was making the economics work for O’Neill Brothers Logging. “It was a challenge,” he admits, “but then I got the idea, What if we make this a real timber sale? We were going to be working on College-owned land” – the College has about 14,000 acres under management – “so there was no problem with finding a willing landowner, since it was us. I talked to Tim about it, and he said a timber sale might work great for him.”

The agreement between the College and O‘Neill Brothers Logging calls for producing two loads a day of spruce-fir, yellow birch, maple, and other mixed hardwoods. The cutting is group selection and small patch cuts, the largest of which is about three acres. Dave says the program has been “very close” to meeting the two-load agreement, even though the students work much more slowly and deliberately than a professional logging crew. “The biggest thing we’re finding is that the grapple-
skidder catches up with the felling crews, and that creates kind of a bumpy flow,” he comments. “But that’s also another learning opportunity for the students, to learn how a smooth flow among felling crews, the feller-buncher, the grapple skidder, and the log-loader out at the landing is supposed to work. There’s almost a science behind it, and you can’t have one part moving faster than another part or else you lose time – which means, of course, in a professional situation you lose money.”

In September, Falkenham and other faculty members at the College will assess what worked in the first Summer School of Logging, and what might be improved for a second session in 2018. “There’s still some development to be done,” he notes, “but we’re at a good starting point. Two years ago they had the idea, but we were basically at zero in terms of putting together a program. A lot of people worked hard to make this happen.”

He admits that he isn’t sure yet how to measure the School’s success. “Is it how many graduates wind up working as loggers? That’s one way, but it can be just as important for a logging company for us to weed out the people who decide, before they get out there, not to be loggers. I think, though, that what we’ve been able to offer with the Summer School is a very big tool for these students, possibly the biggest they could have.”

At the moment, however, the biggest tool Alex and Jared have is their chainsaw – or possibly it’s the five-gallon jug of cold water they’ve got sitting beneath a tree on this hot, humid morning. They share a couple of jokes with Dave before Jared fires up the saw again and gets to work cutting limbs from the main trunk of the yellow birch they felled a few minutes earlier.

“Yep, it’s the hands-on part that’s best,” yells Alex over the roar of the saw. He joins Jared among the branches. Helmets and chaps on, the saw swinging back and forth, t-shirts limp in the heat, gloves and steel-toe boots flecked with sawdust – they look like loggers.

Steve Bjerklie is a journalist based in New Hampshire, where he writes frequently about forestry.

The Northern Logger and Timber Processor – September 2017 Issue – Pages 24-27

Outcomes Based Forestry

By Jeffrey Dubis

Public outcry against clearcutting across the state of Maine prompted the enactment of the Forest Practices Act (FPA) of 1989. Large-scale clearcutting had become prevalent in the state during the last major budworm outbreak in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and continued to a lesser extent thereafter. Passage of the FPA was meant to reduce the size of clearcuts, retain forested separation zones between clearcuts, and set minimum standards to regenerate stands within specific time periods. Under the FPA, a clearcut is defined as any harvested area greater than five acres in size that has less than 30 square feet of basal area per acre. Clearcuts larger than 250 acres are not permitted. All clearcuts must have a separation zone of at least 250’ between them, and those greater than 20 acres need to have an adjacent non-clearcut area that is equal to the actual area of the clearcut. Harvesting is still allowed in separation zones. However, at least 60 square feet of basal area of trees greater than 1” in diameter must be left for up to ten years, or until regeneration within the clearcut reaches a specific height (10’ for softwoods, 20’ for hardwoods) and a density of at least 300 well-distributed stems per acre. Oftentimes, some of the trees left in separation zones are of poor quality and should have been harvested but are left strictly for FPA compliance. Clearcuts greater than 20 acres require the landowner to have a harvest plan on file, while those greater than 75 acres must undergo a pre-approval review by the Maine Forest Service.

If the purpose of the FPA was to reduce the amount of acreage that was clearcut each year, and to put an end to large clearcuts, then it can be considered successful. The acreage of clearcuts in Maine has decreased substantially since the policy passed. However, the FPA mainly addresses aesthetics. It is not based upon scientific principles and does little to encourage sound forestry practices that promote a healthier, more productive forest in the long-term. Passage of FPA also created a headache for landowners and loggers in the form of operational inefficiencies and additional costs. Increased road maintenance and trucking costs are incurred because landowners need to reenter road systems years later to harvest the separation zones. The separation zones themselves are limited in size and their irregular shape creates harvesting units that are inefficient for cutting and skidding wood, thus reducing revenue for the logging contractor.

Although the FPA is still the law of the land in Maine, there is a more recent piece of legislation that gives landowners an alternative means of management – Outcomes-Based Forestry (OBF). Landowners who choose to manage their lands under OBF are exempt from clearcutting standards set by the FPA with the exception of the 250-acre maximum clearcut size and the regeneration standards. In return, landowners make a long-term commitment to manage lands under the state’s forest sustainability criteria. These criteria cover everything from improving long-term forest health and productivity to maintaining and improving soil and water quality, wildlife habitat, and economic viability. Under OBF, land managers have much greater flexibility to conduct treatments across an entire landscape based upon what needs to be done silviculturally, rather than being constrained by the FPA.

OBF has slowly started to take hold in Maine over the past several years. Although passed by the state legislature in 2001, it was not until 2013 that the first landowner signed on to OBF. Initially, OBF had a number of limitations, and, as a result, no landowners were interested. It took several changes to the legislation by the before anyone agreed to manage land to these specifications. Today, three major landowners, including the state itself, voluntarily manage their lands under the principles of OBF. A fourth will soon sign an agreement.

Irving Woodlands LLC, was the first company to implement OBF. According to Ked Coffin, Regional Forester for the company in Maine, OBF made sense for them. “From an overall silvicultural aspect, OBF has allowed our staff to bring the science and fundamentals of sustainable forest management that they were trained for in our university system into practice on the ground. For instance, selection and shelterwood prescriptions are no longer restricted to prescriptive regulations that are not based on science. Foresters can now adapt plans to meet the varying stand conditions as they really occur in the field.”

Outcomes-Based Forestry can also improve operational efficiencies, which in turn may reduce costs. Irving reports a reduction in their annual road construction costs while at the same time reducing inefficiencies that affect the bottom line of their logging contractors. According to Coffin, “Operations are now grouped more efficiently. As a result, we have experienced a decrease in road construction, a reduced road maintenance footprint and less time on lowbeds for our contractors, which equates to more uptime. Additionally, we no longer have to repeatedly re-enter road systems to treat stands that were previously locked out for FPA separation zoning. In today’s global marketplace every efficiency gain matters to survival.”

Ecologically, there can be advantages to OBF as well. Not only does OBF allow for greater silvicultural flexibility, but it can also result in less fragmentation of the forest due to the harvest patterns that FPA creates. Coffin states “At the landscape level, our folks are no longer constrained with having to adapt to a cookie cutter management style that fragmented our landscape in a manner that was unnatural. Although I can’t answer for them, indications are that the certifiers for the Forest Stewardship Council are pleased with the alignment between OBF and state sustainability standards and the overall principles of certification.”

So if OBF enables greater efficiencies in operations and significant cost savings in addition to better forest management, why aren’t more landowners signing on to it? Landowners who enroll under OBF must be third party certified by either the Forest Stewardship Council or Sustainable Forestry Initiative. In addition, landowners undergo greater outside scrutiny of their management by the Maine Forest Service and a technical advisory panel made up of experts in the forestry field. Frequent audits of operations to ensure that all timber harvesting is ecologically as well as economically sustainable become the norm. Therefore, OBF is not for everyone. For those that do chose OBF the benefits are worth the additional measures of accountability.

Does this mean that landowners under OBF will clearcut greater areas? Not necessarily. According to Coffin, “Under OBF, selection and shelterwood harvest systems continue to be the dominant prescriptions, typically 80% of the annual area that we harvest, applied across the landscape, annual clearcutting levels remain virtually unchanged versus the FPA.” Even landowners who do very little clearcutting are agreeing to be managed under the principles of OBF. Seven Islands Land Company, a large forest management company in northern and western Maine does very limited clearcutting, yet is in the final stages of a signed OBF agreement with the state.

“Typically the first forestry practice that comes to mind when someone mentions OBF is clearcutting,” states Nick Baser, Northern Maine Regional Manager for Seven Islands. “That was our first thought when approached about an OBF agreement by the Maine Forest Service. While OBF is currently the only alternative to the FPA, the benefits and reasons to consider entering an agreement are much broader than just the benefits surrounding clearcutting. For Seven Islands, where less than 1% of the ownership has some restrictions under the FPA, an OBF agreement will allow us more management flexibility in how we schedule harvest and road building activities, prescribe silvicultural treatments, and manage forest operations. We are planning to increase our operational unit size to benefit from the efficiency gains of a larger economy of scale, while also addressing larger landscape and ecosystem function consideration. This will help contain management costs, reduce forest fragmentation, and give us the ability to treat all stands as desired using scientifically sound silvicultural practices. OBF has created a pathway that allows foresters to assess the resource at both the stand and landscape level, and match the best silvicultural practices and operational parameters to fit along the natural stand boundaries.”

Although the majority of commercial forestlands in Maine will likely continue to be regulated under the FPA for some time, landowners are catching on to the advantages of OBF. Outcomes-Based Forestry goes beyond putting a Band-Aid on beauty strip issues. Unlike the arbitrary constraints of the FPA, the alternative engages modern scientific practices and involves landowner commitment to sustainable forestry. It will lead to improved growth, productivity, and quality trees throughout Maine’s forests. Maintaining involvement from landowner to logger in the timber industry is especially critical in rural areas where these jobs are vital to supporting local economies. Increased forest health and quality products enable the industry to be more competitive in the global marketplace. Finally, and very important, Maine is now in a unique situation not seen before the implementation of OBF. There is increased opportunity for oversight in the management forest practices, one whereby experts in forestry review current forest management practices and assess the results on an annual basis. According to Nick Baser “This is huge!”

The Northern Logger and Timber Processor – October 2017 Issue 

This seed tree harvest would not be permissible under FPA due to low residual stocking. OBF gives land managers more flexibility to harvest based upon the silvicultural needs of the forest rather than upon the arbitrary rules of the FPA.

The area on the left is an FPA separation zone while the area on the right was harvested under OBF. Although there are less residual trees on the right, all trees are of high quality and the stand should regenerate to a higher composition of sugar maple and yellow birch due to decreased shade.

This clear cut has been disk-trenched to improve growing conditions for the spruce seedlings that will be planted the following year. Outcomes-based forestry can lead to reduced operational costs, which frees up funding for practices such as site preparation and planting that improve forest productivity.

Seedlings waiting to be planted in a recent clear cut.