Winter in the Woods
Ponderay Valley Fibre finds
more than wildlife benefits from habitat improvement.
Winter jobs are a
premium and Ponderay Valley took on just such a project with the
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife with unique requirements and
a timber purchase does not always have to show an immediate and strong profit on
the balance sheet in order to yield a positive effect on the company’s long-term
health and stability. Take as an example Ponderay Valley Fibre of Usk, Wash. Not
too long ago it won the bids on a couple of timber sales put up by the
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Because of some unique
requirements and restrictions, neither job was hugely profitable, according to
Bernie Janoski, Forester for Ponderay Valley Fibre, but it still worked out to
the company’s benefit.
"It was winter logging, and it’s always a premium to capture that winter and
early spring wood," said Janoski. "Our mill is cutting 60 million board feet of
lumber a year and you have to look at every opportunity that comes along. It was
a bit of a reach [distance-wise from the mill to the job site], but we live in
an area with a lot of federal lands and there hasn’t been much activity on
federal lands here in the last few years. Every mill in our area has had to
expand their working circle." That’s putting it mildly. The first job Ponderay
bid on and won was outside of Ellensburg, Wash., a 246-mile haul each way from
its mill in Usk.
Even Doug Kuehn, the Wildlife
Forester with WDFW who put the bid together, was a little surprised that a mill
from so far out of the area would be interested. "We weren’t sure if we’d even
get any bids," said Kuehn. "Our goal was to just break even. In the bid we
required them to remove the timber to a 5-inch top and the pulpwood to a 2- 1/2
inch top because we wanted to reduce the fuel so it wouldn’t burn so hot that we
killed off all that we were leaving. I think they were only able to get about
$20 per ton for the pulpwood, and we figured it cost around $28 per ton to get
it cut and delivered."
Operators had to
reprogram themselves for cutting specifications. They ended up sending
ground crew ahead of marks trees.
Fortunately there wasn’t all that much pulpwood to contend with, but that was
just one of the complicating factors in the job. The Ellensburg job was
officially known as the Joe Watt Habitat Improvement 2003, located in the LT
Murray Wildlife Area. Joe Watt is the name of the creek that runs through the
140-acre site, and the job was for an experimental thinning project for
small-diameter trees to improve deer and elk winter range habitat. According to
Kuehn, "Because people keep-ing expanding out into what used to be deer and elk
winter range, we now have a 10-foot fence around Interstate 90 and the elk can’t
cross I-90 to get to their traditional winter range. Rather than have them
getting into people’s hay stacks and fruit orchards, we feed them between 400
and 500 tons of hay each winter."
At a cost of somewhere around $160
per ton, that’s an expense they’d like to avoid. The test area is only a small
portion of the over 200,000 acres of wildlife area purchased from Murray Pacific
around 1968. Logging continued up until about a dozen years ago, so most of the
timber is small-diameter material that represents not only a burn hazard, but
which also shades out most of the browse vegetation for the deer and elk.
What’s Best for the
To determine how best to restore the habitat, Kuehn divided the area into 20
seven-acre test plots and mandated a thinning program that would leave spacings
of 25 by 25 feet (70 trees per acre), 30 by 30 feet (50 per acre), 35 by 35 feet
(37 per acre), and 40 by 40 feet (27 per acre). The different densities would
then be treated to a spring burn, a fall burn, or no burn at all, and the
regrowth rates would be measured and compared. The overall goal was to bring
back the ceanothus and other fire-dependent species that had largely disappeared
due to fire suppression programs over the years. For Ponderay, it meant a lot
more attention to detail both on the ground and in the cab.
Unless otherwise specified, the
Ponderay crews were to leave the dominant and necessary co-dominant trees and
maintain the average number of trees per acre for that spacing, leave all
existing wildlife trees that had been left from past timber harvests, leave all
damaged or diseased trees when their removal would create a void in the stand,
and convert trees with scars or open wounds on the lower bowl to wildlife trees
by cutting a high stump. At first, said Ponderay’s Janoski, they tried to leave
all the decision-making to the equipment operators, but it impacted productivity
too much. "We were using single grip harvesters with forward logging, and while
we’ve been doing cut-to-length forwarder logging over here for quite a while,
the operators had to reprogram themselves for the cutting specifications. They
had to look past what they used to think of as a trash tree, for example
mistletoe, and look at it on a wildlife basis and see the benefits for the
They ended up sending ground crew
ahead of the processors to mark which exact trees were to be cut. That brought
the cutting back into schedule, but because the job window ran only from
mid-November to mid-December, many of the deer and elk had already re-entered
the area from their fall grazing range — and that in turn placed even more
challenges on the crews.
Hanging Out with the
"We had probably 150 head of mule deer and 400 head of elk in the area by the
time we finished," said Janoski. "They didn’t seem to mind us though. In fact,
they enjoyed the tops of the felled trees with the lichen in them, although the
forwarders often had to wait for the deer to move away from the bucked logs
before they could take them into the landing." Kuehn agreed that it was a
learning experience for everyone involved. "I went out with the crews on the
first day and I remember talking to one of the guys and saying ‘See that tree
with the witch’s broom and mistletoe? I want you to leave me like six of these
per acre.’ And he asked me ‘Why would you want to leave something that ugly?’
Just then two northern flying squirrels flew out of the clump and landed about
10 feet in front of us. He looked at me and said, ‘I haven’t seen a flying
squirrel in 20 years.’ Well, that’s why we wanted to leave those things."
Deer and elk enjoyed the
felled tree tops, to the point forwarders often had to wait for the deer
to move to get bucked trees to the landing.
Despite the challenges, Ponderay did such good job that when they finished the
Joe Watt project, Kuehn encouraged them to bid on a second project of a similar
nature in the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, about 25 miles outside of Omak, Wash.
Called the Cope Habitat Improvement Timber Sale, this second job required the
same care and attention to detail that had been needed to pull off the Joe Watt
cut, but the big difference was, it was closer to the Ponderay mill and it
netted out about 745,000 board feet of good usable Doug fir and pine. The pine
made up only about 10 percent of the total, and Ponderay trucked that a short 22
miles to the Caulville tribal precision pine mill in Omak. The fir, except for a
small percentage of oversize logs, all went to Ponderay’s mill in Usk. The Cope
sale was designed specifically to improve mule deer winter range by reducing the
density of Doug Fir that had invaded as a result of fire suppression (the last
fire in the area happened in 1911).
The Forest Service was planning to
do a prescribed burn on about 10,000 acres of land adjacent to the WDFW land,
but before that happened Kuehn wanted to significantly reduce the fuel load on
the wildlife land so things didn’t burn so hot that the dirt became sterilized.
"Just like with Joe Watt, I required them to use a single grip feller-processor
and then load directly onto a county road," said Kuehn. The timeframe for Cope
was between December 15 and March 15, which meant that as soon as Ponderay
finished in LT Murray, they packed up their equipment and moved it over to
Sinlahekin. Kuehn also required removal of everything above 7 inches dbh up to a
4-inch top. That was perfect for Ponderay, since its mill will take to a 3- 1/2
inch top and 13-inch maximum diameter. In summary, said Janoski, "it was a
pleasant experience working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
It’s good to see a government agency wanting to do something to benefit their
land. You want to do the right thing out there and it just took a little time
for the operators to understand the gist of the sale and what they were really
trying to accomplish."
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