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A look at West Fork Timber, Two Decades After the Spotted Owl
By Diane Mettler
It was the 1990s, and the spotted owl was transforming the timber industry. Some panicked, some protested, and some like West Fork Timber, in Mineral, Wash., were proactive.
Back then, West Fork Timber knew that many of its 54,000 acres were home to spotted owls and a plan of action was needed to avoid going out of business. A comprehensive Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) was drawn up, and it has kept the tree farm both profitable and eco-friendly for more than two decades.
The company, privately owned by the Murray family, has 54,000 acres in eastern Lewis County. It has five salaried employees and seven employees who handle maintenance and road work on its 400+ miles of road.
“We’ve got two foresters and one wildlife biologist, as well as Dave Merzoian who takes care of the logging and contracting and cutting and the road crews,” says Scott Swanson, manager and vice president of West Fork.
Swanson, who became manager in 1995 and worked other jobs prior to that within the company, has seen West Fork take on environmental challenges and make the adjustments, which continue today.
“When the HCP was put in place, it was a big change in how they did things,” he says. “It changed how we were managing habitat for all species, then and in the future. One of the things we did was agree to average our harvest size to only 40 acres and no more than 120 acres.”
“We also provide dispersal habitat for juvenile owls across the tree farm over time,” he adds. “And we provide habitat for many other species too, like Golden Eagles, Bald Eagles, Northern Goshawks, as well as riparian habitat for fish and amphibians.”
One of the biggest challenges for Swanson and his team was, and continues to be, coordinating harvests in conjunction with wildlife management.
For example, a “dispersal habitat” is one with 100 to 300 stems per acre of 10-inch diameter trees. Trees must also be limbed 20 feet up for the owls to fly through. “It gets complex as the stands mature,” says Swanson.
Another piece of the puzzle is placement of the harvest. “It’s had to be spread out throughout the ownership,” he says. “By 2043 we must have dispersal habitat no further apart than a quarter mile.”
Dispersal habitat starts occurring when trees are 30 to 40 years of age. “Some timberland owners are looking at harvesting about then, while we’re working at about a 50-year rotation,” says Swanson.
It doesn’t stop there. “Our HCP is based on watershed analysis that came into the Forest Practice Act in the early 90s, about the same time that we were developing the HCP. We have land in about 11 different watersheds, and nine watershed analyses have occurred,” Swanson says, pointing to a row of enormous three ring binders. “The prescription from the watershed analysis is what provides the rules we work under and have been adopted into our HCP.”
Part of the HCP is about increasing harvested board feet. While West Fork protects more land, they are also working toward increasing larger harvests. “We will continue to increase our board feet through 2030 and then will stay fixed,” explains Swanson.
During the last few years though, the environmental conditions have not been the hardship. For them — like many others — the hardship has been staying economically solid during low housing starts.
West Fork logs a variety of species including: Western Hemlock, Pacific Silver Fir, and Noble Fir. “Probably 40 percent of what we harvest (300-400 acres annually) is those three species,” says Swanson. “The remaining 60 percent is Douglas Fir. We also have a little Western Red Cedar and Alder.”
The harvested trees are sent to either the Hampton mill in Morton or to Whitewood in Randle. The red cedar goes on to TMI. Swanson says only about 25 percent is currently being exported.
The company contracts George Vanderpool and his crew of eight to do the harvesting. Vanderpool runs two sides on the mountainous terrain. The tree farm’s elevation ranges from 1,000 feet to 5,400 feet, with the average being around 3,000.
The snow — sometimes 20 feet deep in places — limits harvesting during the winter months. “That’s a challenge, when we try to meet the markets” says Swanson. “If the higher market is during the winter months, it’s hard for us to participate.”
It’s a challenge for Vanderpool to keep his crew operating year-round too. “We’ve been fairly lucky the last few years. West Fork tries to keep some winter work at their lower elevations, but they don’t have a lot of low ground,” says Vanderpool. “Usually we’ll scale back and just run a shovel side or just run a small crew to do winter work.”
Equipment for Steep Slopes
Vanderpool has contracted for the West Fork hills since 1998 and worked for other West Fork contractors before that. He is accustomed to the rugged ground. “That’s kind of our niche,” he says. “We’ve always done their long line work and their tougher ground. I like doing that kind of work, and they’ve got a lot of that ground, so we’ve been a good fit.”
To handle the slopes, Vanderpool is currently leaning on his Link-Belts. Right now he has three Link-Belt loaders and a Link-Belt processor.
“I have the new 370, two 4300s, and a 330 with a Waratah dangle head,” says Vanderpool. He’s also got a couple Skagit yarders, as well as a D9 and D8 crawler, a D6 grapple Cat, and a Mark VI Boman sky car.
The new 370 is ideal for the steep terrain, says Vanderpool. “My operator —who had shovel logged and run a lot of machines — says this is by far the best log loader he’s ever had. It’s got so much travel power and swing torque, and it really gets around well.”
He adds, “The 370 is so stable. Again, on this tree farm they don’t have any traditional shovel ground. It’s a challenge to get it. So the machine really does well there.”
It’s not all about equipment though. Vanderpool says the crew is key. “Most of them have been with me for a long time. I think that’s a real key, especially in cable logging. Your crew is everything. It’s easy to get equipment and jobs. Without the people you just can’t do it. I have a real good crew. Everyone is there every day. They come to work, and I try to treat them the best I can.”
Years back, when the HCP was cutting edge, people came to see how West Fork was doing it. Today the tree farm isn’t unique, but what is amazing is how well the birds, animals, and trees are doing after 20 years.
West Fork has to survey for different species, and Swanson says, “If you look for them, you’ll find them. In the past, there was more concern if there were ANY. But we find that as we look, we see more species than we thought were in the area.”
The bigger problem today is the recreational user — people coming up with their quads and snowmobiles. “We’re seeing more because the access is more limited with state and federal lands now.”
It’s hard to catch them because they go off road but West Fork has gotten some help from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The company recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. When L.T. Murray founded the company in 1911, he couldn’t have ever imagined enormous Link-Belt 370 log loaders or HCPs, but he would definitely be proud.
“The company is known for its environmental integrity,” says Swanson. “We’ve been working on this HCP, and it was the first one in the country for covering all species. Today people use the terms sustainability and stewardship, but we’ve been doing it before those words were even coined.”
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