January and February 2006
 

 

 

Finesse on the Ground

Bill Nelson develops a successful silviculture operation.

By David Chelan

In 1993, Bill Nelson faced the biggest challenge of his career. A veteran in the site preparation business with two decades of experience already under his belt, he was facing a decline in business. The main obstacle to overcome? Convincing foresters that mechanical site preparation could be handled without excess removal of topsoil and the accompanying erosion.

That year Nelson decided to purchase his first excavator. It was a shrewd decision. In the ensuing years his business, based in Valley, Wash., has evolved from using three dozers and prepping 2,500 acres to using eight excavators and handling 6,000 acres a year.

Over the past 10 years, Bill Nelson has moved away from bulldozing and added excavators. And he's had to convince foresters that mechanical site preparation is the right choice when done properly.

 

Growing a Business

“I wasn’t in danger of going out of business, but I had to reinvent things,” recalls Nelson. “I had to get foresters interested again in mechanical site preparation and get them on the line of thought that mechanical site prep is not bad if done correctly. I bought one excavator and started to promote it and try to get people to come look at what I was doing.” Adding excavators is not the only modification that Nelson has utilized in order to keep his business growing. To give a better representation of the company’s true nature, he changed the name from Nelson Bulldozing to Nelson Silviculture.

“Bulldozing is kind of a harsh word,” explains Nelson. “Now we’re doing silviculture work where we’re more of a nurturing company: trying to get trees to grow, creating planting spots and saving the little trees that we can.”

Nelson started phasing out his bulldozers after he bought his first excavator, and after three years of running both, completely phased out the dozers. Plans are in the works to order two more excavators by next year, which will put the total number at ten.

 

A Little Finesse

Excavators are more of a finesse machine than bulldozers, and rather than level everything in their path, operators can be more selective. For example, a small tree can be yanked out of the ground individually, which is ideal for thinning. Nelson, who has been in the site preparation business since 1973, classifies the old method of steamrolling as archaic.

“We weren’t pulling a rock around with a couple of oxen, but we were using dozers for many years and putting huge amounts of fuel in piles to burn and tearing up the ground really harshly. That kind of dwindled in the ‘90s when people started to see how harsh it was on the soil and started to look for a better way to do it. That’s when we came up with using excavators,” says Nelson.

Bill says that an operator can grasp the fundamentals of an excavator quickly, but it takes months to acquire to fully what is required on the ground.

 

Robust Equipment Required

With job sites ranging from near the Canadian border to Whitefish, Mont. to Pasco, Wash., Nelson needs sturdy machines that will hold up to the harsh rigors of the region’s terrain. Sometimes the machines run on 65 percent slope and in addition to traversing steep hills, they also encounter stumps, boulders and other obstacles. Since purchasing his first Hitachi excavator a dozen years ago, Nelson has expanded his stable to eight — all of which are Hitachi 200s. “They’re as well-built as any machine on the market,” he says.

Nelson has four Hitachi EX200-5LCs and four Zaxis 200s, which are the newest model. Each has a rollover cab, hard side screens and tall grousers. Nelson custom-builds the rakes himself and also modifies the pads. One of the machines has dozer pads and the rest have three bar grouser pads with an extra bar that Nelson welded onto every other pad. This adjustment makes the excavators 1 to 2 inches taller and allows the machines to climb better when gripping hills.

Due to the harsh conditions the excavators are subjected to, Nelson estimates that the life span of a brand new model is seven years. “We put about 1,000 hours on a machine a year and it’s really tough on them,” he says.

 

Operators in Demand

One of Nelson’s biggest challenges is finding capable operators. He believes there is enough demand for a dozen machines, but there is a shortage of trained operators for this line of work. Even those with experience can be in for a shock when excavating on steep ground for the first time. Because there are so few excavator operations doing this type of site prep work, Nelson trains all of his new charges himself. He starts the novice on flat ground before gradually preparing them for steeper ground. The learning curve can be tough; several operators have walked off the job after they’d taken an excavator up a hillside and then become frightened.

According to Nelson, an operator with limited experience can learn the basic functions of an excavator after a month, but it usually takes three to four months to acquire a full grasp of what is required and how to work the ground. In addition to being able to run the machinery, the operators must also be able to identify tree species and diseases, an important aspect to a silvicultural operation. “You have to be able to identify the different diseases and take them out as you see it,” says Nelson.

Another challenge Nelson faces is rising gasoline prices. When bidding on jobs this spring he had to raise his prices due to the surging cost of fuel, but they are still a little low. Gasoline prices “just about doubled since spring so it’s hurt,” relates Nelson. Typically, his season runs from late May and goes through December.

 

Competition in the Woods

One challenge Nelson Silviculture hasn’t had to face yet is serious competition. Nelson says there have been a few contractors who have tried to get started in his neck of the woods, but unfamiliar with the intricacies of site prep operations, they quickly go broke. In fact, he has picked up several contracts from contractors who defaulted because they were using novice operators and weren’t getting enough production from the excavators they were renting for thousands of dollars a month.

Nelson hopes to increase the gap between himself and would-be competitors over the next few years. He has partnered with his son to start a new site preparation business called NS Enterprises, which is tribally owned and enables the Nelsons to work on the Colville Reservation. Also, Nelson Silviculture is starting to do hazardous fuels reduction, which is a means of alleviating wildfire hazards and lessening the risks of catastrophic fires.

All in all, Nelson is ecstatic about the future prospects of his 32-year-old company. “I see a lot of growth for my company. In the future, as foresters see how well these excavators work, I will get more business. I can’t see any end to it.”

TW

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This page was last updated on Friday, June 16, 2006