Aug, 2001

 

 

 

 

Small and Successful

Kaiser Timber, Inc. finds itself a nice fit with the Forest Service

Logger Chris Welter, owner of Kaiser Timber, Inc.

By Kurt Glaeseman

Although Kaiser Timber's not exactly a by-the-book operation, owner Chris Welter is a committed reader. Chris believes he can learn a lot from what others have to say about timber management practices. "This industry is always changing," says Chris. "That's not necessarily bad, but the changes have been so accelerated in the past few years that I need to know what others have thought in the past and are thinking right now." He quotes freely from Patrick Moore's very current Green Spirit and Hank Johnston's more historical Rails to the Minarets: The Story of the Sugar Pine Lumber Company. At this time, Kaiser Timber, Inc., in Auberry, Calif., is the southern-most cut-to-length operation on the West Coast. 

However, that may be misleading. California is a long state and the town of North Fork, 30 minutes north of Auberry, is hailed as the exact center of the state. That places most of Chris's timber harvesting on the western slope of the Southern Sierras, to the south of Yosemite Park and northeast of Fresno. It's often a "forgotten" logging area. "This is an excellent area for growing timber," Chris reflects, "and the area around Auberry is renowned for big pine trees. That's what pushed a strong railroad logging enterprise in the 1920s and '30s. Money seemed to be no object, and the investment was huge. In one year the railroad, complete with elaborate five-tiered trestles, was completed from Pinedale to Central Camp. 

Timberjack 1270 Harvester in the snow

The big pine logs were reduced to lumber for the 'back-East'." In one decade, over a billion board feet were taken from the area. It wasn't clear-cut; white fir was basically ignored in favor of the more valuable sugar pine, and old photos show a rather modern-looking "thinned" forest. In spite of a flashy 1931 propaganda poster depicting a trainload of logs headed east for a hungry market, the operations faltering financial situation left it vulnerable to the Great Depression. The era of railroad logging ground to a halt in 1933. In the ensuing years, private timber companies did some reforestation, and land was traded back and forth with the Forest Service, which ended up with the majority. The forest kept growing, outlasting the pine bark beetle of the drought years, and supplying logs and work for the many small sawmills that sprang up in the area. But in the early '90s, things changed. 

The Timberjack 1210 forwarder run by Mike McFarland

The Forest Service's 30-inch rule, adopted "out of respect for research on the Sierra National Forest spotted owl," changed the format for logging. A tree with a 30-inch (or greater) diameter could becut only if it was determined to be aroad hazard. Small logging companieswent out of business and sawmills shutdown. However, the forest kept growing. Today Chris Welter's cut-to-lengthoperation is designed to dovetail with thespecifications of the Forest Service harvest plans. Currently he's finishing a three-year stint on the South Fork Thinning Sale, located at 5300 feet elevation (eight miles) above North Fork. The specs for the separate tracts vary - some require thinning for later harvest; others are fuel breaks for fire management and control. The four major species are white fir, ponderosa pine, sugar pine, and incense cedar. 

The Timberjack 1210 forwards through the snow

Chris, the son of an Oregon logger, worked in the woods in Oregon and Alaska before coming to California. He finds that with present conditions, he can do better with a small operation. He does the logging contract bookwork and the handfalling; his wife Marilyn handles correspondence, bookkeeping and payroll; Ron Simmons runs the Timberjack 1270; and Mike McFarland does the skidding and loading with a Timberjack 1210. "We try to run year-around," Chris says, "which means that we do a lot of work in the snow. It's not the snow so much that slows us down, but the spring thaws, which can divert runoff and muddy up a road real fast." During the winter months this part of the Sierras had around eight feet of snow, which has now compacted to a crusted four feet. But work goes on. 

 

Operator Ron Simmons straightens a bar on the Timberjack 1270 Harvester.

 

Marilyn Welter, Bookkeeper, Office Manager, Wife.

Carl Koeppling is the lead driver for Sierra Pacific's North Fork run.

Chris and Ron have a definite battle plan: Chris goes first and handfalls anything over 20 inches, although the Timberjack 1270 can cut stems from 24 to 27 inches. Chris feels that the combination of his handfalling and Ron's use of the harvester complement each other efficiently. "Bigger trees, with more leverage, are more likely to squirm and get out of the machine. I don't have that problem, and I can place the bigger trees exactly where I want them. More important, handfalling saves expensive time for the harvester. You have to think how much per hour it costs to run that machine. 

I'd rather see Ron maximizing his time." Chris wields a big Husqvarna 394 chainsaw: "That's how I keep in shape. That's my workout for the day: 2-3 hours of handfalling." Handfalling in the snow can be laborious; Chris often has to shovel snow away from the base so he can conform to the 12-inch or lower stump rule in the harvest plan. "If I'm off for a while, I get a little out of shape. The first couple of days, when I handfall in deep snow, I end up one tired pup by the end of the evening." The two Timberjacks maneuver easily through the snow, but both Simmons and McFarland stay cautious of hidden dangers and surprises, like sharp ditches, big rocks, and solid stumps. Even without snow, the occasional breakdown is inevitable, and Chris accepts this as part of daily business. 

He watches as Ron Simmons does a hose repair on the 1270, a seven-yearold machine with 6300 hard hours on it. "Ron is pretty proficient at hose repair. We have our own hydraulic hose machine and can repair on site. We keep an inventory of all our sizes of hoses and fittings." Ron is from Forks, Washington, and found the climate change (from wet-wet-wet to hot-anddry) to be quite dramatic. He actually prefers to run his harvester in the colder winter and spring months. Mike McFarland is a local boy who enjoys running the Timberjack 1210. He makes his way up the trail, gathers a load of logs, and returns to the landing, where he either decks them or loads them directly onto a waiting truck. "I've loaded before with frontend and shovel loaders," he comments. "This is a little different, but I like it. I've been loading logs for nine years." 

He picks up one, two or three stems at a time, often edging them carefully around a tree the Forest Service has marked for keeping. At the landing, he separates the logs by species and size before loading them onto a Sierra Pacific truck. The 1210 forwarder is rated for 15 tons, and McFarland prefers working with the heavy fir rather than the lighter cedar. The small logs are taken to the mill at Chinese Camp and the large ones to the Standard mill near Sonora. Because the snow slows down the log production, the trucks, equipped with turkey racks, often carry mixed loads - for example, half cedar and half white fir. Carl Koeppling, the lead driver for Sierra Pacific, says each trucker can get in only one roundtrip per day - that's 9.5 hours for the 225 mile trip. In the winter, the operation cuts and decks about three loads a day. This increases to four or five when summer conditions allow faster and more efficient production. 

As winter turns to spring, the Forest Service often shuts them down around noon if the roads are muddy and getting cut up too much. Do the Welters regret not running a bigger operation? Marilyn Welter likes their current size: "We're small, but I know exactly where everything is. We can take care of problems as they arise. It's easier for us with no trucks and no loader. We can spend more energy taking care of our employees." Chris too likes the manageable size of today's Kaiser Timber, but the new management processes intrigue him more: "I've done all kinds of logging, and I'm really jazzed about doing it this way. I can recycle materials back to where they need to be, like the slash on the trails. It provides nutrients and cushions the soil as the machines work back and forth on smaller trails. We know that big roads lead to big erosion. 

The forest needs this kind of care - low impact on the forest floor and wise thinning. I don't necessarily agree with the 30-inch diameter upper limit. It seems that sometimes we are leaving too many large trees for the smaller ones to survive . . . and we're missing out on all that good wood. When I look back at this particular thin, I think we're leaving a stand that is pretty well-spaced for the dominant trees. But it's only smart of us to look back at the history of this forest as well as forward to the new management trends and techniques." Chris isn't pessimistic about the future of American logging and lumber. "We've got to incorporate logging ideas that are good for the planet. We can still use more wood and plant more trees; after all, they're more renewable and sustainable than the fossil fuels."

Kurt received a Master's in English at
Stanford, and taught for 33 years before he
became a freelance writer. He has written
for numerous Northwest magazines

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