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Last Man Standing
Mike Reynolds Logging shows it takes innovation and determination to stay in the business these days
By Barbara Coyner
Mike Reynolds isn't one to muddle around in hard luck stories. Sure, the economy is bad, and logging is especially troubled with housing starts down. But Reynolds needs to keep his blood pressure under control, and that means honing a strategy for the future.
Right now, that strategy could include processing woody biomass. After all, thinning the North Idaho forests and delivering small logs and biomass will always require loggers. But can Reynolds read the tea leaves correctly when it comes to shelling out for another piece of equipment?
Biomass Gains Foothold
"The biomass angle is new here, and the Forest Service is all excited," says Reynolds, who's already traveled to Oregon to check out a slash bundler. He also went to see one in action at Sweden's giant Elmia in the Woods event. "Priest Community Forest Connection (PCFC) has laid a lot of the groundwork so we want to look at biomass and get something going in the community."
PCFC has been a plus for Reynolds. The group developed after the Priest River Development Corporation snagged the Lakeface Lamb Stewardship Project in 2002. The fed was interested in getting some forest thinning done, using profits for other forest improvements.
During the project, Reynolds and his seasoned crew demonstrated the innovative cut-to-length technology to the public, creating added respect for the logging profession. Reynolds' foreman Jeff Connolly, a member of Priest River City Council, played both community organizer and logger, while Minnesota transplant Liz Johnson-Gebhardt, now PCFC director, pulled various community factions together.
Gains from Stewardship Projects
Reynolds also benefited from the efforts of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, which brought industry, community, and environmental interests into a collaborative setting. Initial players included Duane Vaagen (Vaagen Brothers Lumber), Tim Coleman (Kettle Range Conservation Group), Mike Peterson (Lands Council), and Colville National Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell, among others.
Thanks to the group's cooperative spirit and determination, the Forest Service tripled its cut over the last five years. It's a case in which the highly touted collaboration has actually delivered some results.
"About 90 percent of the work we do is for Vaagen Brothers (Colville WA), and most of it is federal, doing thinnings," says Reynolds, who started his company 25 years ago. "Their groundwork got us mostly agency wood. It's the only way we're surviving, because the private sector is pretty well dried up. Thank God for federal and state wood right now."
At the top of Reynolds' list for survival tools is an expert crew that has ridden the roller coaster economy with him. It's not been easy to keep workers on board with the unpredictable schedules, ever-changing regulations, and other constraints. But Reynolds has been fortunate to keep most of his crew for years, offering competitive pay and benefits.
"I couldn't stay in business without such a dedicated, hard working crew," he says, mentioning each crewmember by name. Harvest operators are James Huling, Brian Ackerman, Brian Reynolds, Gene Westfall, and David Ehrmantrout, while Brad Ackerman and Luke Scott pilot the forwarders. Leon Mac Donald, Mike Richards, and Doug Cook run the excavators, Kirk Randolf drives the truck, and Rick Knox keeps the mechanic shop humming.
As for logging, Reynolds admits that when he started 40 years ago, it was all about getting the cut out. He's since thought and rethought clear-cutting and knows there's a place for it. Nevertheless, he's at home in the niche of harvesting small-diameter logs, and doing primarily thinning work.
When it comes to equipment, both Reynolds and Connolly are Valmet fans. The company started a major equipment upgrade in 2006 and now has six Valmet harvesters and three Valmet forwarders as the main workhorses. The list includes two 941 harvesters and four EX10 track mounted harvesters, with one 941 barely a year old. Three Valmet 890 forwarders are matched to the harvesters, with two harvesters per forwarder proving efficient for the prescribed work.
"We bought when business was good," Reynolds says of the purchases from the Valmet Product Manager and cut-to-length specialist, René van der Merwe, at Modern Machinery in Spokane. "It's kind of like computers at home. The old ones got the job done, but the new ones are better. It was a good time to upgrade because we got good resale value. But it was quite a decision to make."
Connolly applauds the gutsy move, acknowledging that nobody could have foreseen the housing bubble burst and subsequent slump. Both Reynolds and Connolly hold the conviction, however, that the updated equipment continues to offer a competitive edge. Plus the parts are interchangeable with previous Valmet machines, and the crew is already experienced in Valmet operations.
"This new equipment is a far cry from some of the older stuff," says Connolly. "It's faster, with more up time, and it's easier to work on. One thing about Valmet is that they just keep improving their products."
Reynolds clearly likes the Valmet 370 head, pointing to the adjustments that can be made from the cab. "You can tune the hydraulic pressures with the computer. You can change knife pressure and feed trees faster than the old way. That feed pressure is all controlled from inside the cab. With the older ones, you had to get out and get your wrenches."
The combination of tracks and rubber tires gives the company the flexibility it needs to tackle any terrain. "Both tracks and rubber tires have their place," Reynolds notes. "The wheel machines are good on private ground where the customer wants low pressure. The tracks are more versatile on steep ground and in deep snow." Reynolds also likes the harvester booms, which are capable of long reach and high speed. Each harvester head is able to cut up to a 28-inch diameter, but with 21 inches considered old growth, the system usually tackles smaller timber, cutting down to 2 ½-inch tops.
Soft Spot for Small Logs
Reynolds and Connolly both appreciate having a specialty with small logs, and they like the cut-to-length system. "Cut-to-length is the only way to go," says Reynolds. "We have an advantage in the game that we're not required by our mills to do tree-length harvesting."
Reynolds also contends that good dealer service has kept him a Valmet customer, despite the attractive features on other brands. "I've had 50 Valmet machines over the years. They call me the grandfather of cut-to-length in the U.S. For an old goat, who knows, I might be the last one standing."
Taking the Next Step
If the "old goat" outlasts others in the area, it will be his sheer determination, along with Connolly's savvy at working with the public. Frequent kidding and good-natured banter in the woods clearly keep morale high with the 15-member crew. Having a boss who constantly thinks outside the box helps too. And Reynolds is thinking biomass. Already he's had a Fecon mastication head at work, providing chipping for choosy landowners who want a clean job without burning.
Yet to make the next step in biomass, two issues must be resolved: the right equipment and efficient transportation. Reynolds is studying a Valmet slash bundler although he's not thoroughly convinced the investment will pay off in his area. Hauling is the biggie, and the hook-lift roll-off bins in use around Missoula seem a good candidate. There's an Avista woody biomass plant 90 miles away that already has acquired a 25-year track record of generating biomass energy. That facility hunts woods sources out to a 200-mile radius, sometimes reaching into Canada. With area mills shut down or running at reduced capacity, it has to get its wood supply from somewhere.
Reynolds wonders whether loggers will be filling the gaps, chipping or grinding biomass on-site, or delivering bundles to be chipped at the energy plant. With the nation looking to more woody biomass plants in the area, loggers such as Reynolds might very well find a brand new future.
"There's a big push for biomass right now," Reynolds says. "For that, we need an industry to be here, stay around, and get strong. I get nervous about the amount of wood we need to harvest. We need the agencies to respond, because a lot of ground needs to be treated." TW
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