Finding Advantage In A Downsizing
Jerry Bowles committed to
logging when others were pulling out. His hard work and quality work paid off.
Bowles and Son are of the Potlach Coporation's number one harvesters.
By Barbara Coyner
Downsizing. It's infected logging
as much as any other industry, leaving smaller logging crews, leaner mill staffs
and reductions in other timber industry support services. But for independents
such as Potlatch, Idaho logger Jerry Bowles, there may be a silver lining to all
this. At 52, Bowles has seen it all.
Jerry Bowles (right) and
son Tony taking care of minor mechanic chores.
He broke into the profession 37
years ago, working with horses and a one-and-a-half-ton flatbed. Some years were
tight, and he picked up income working in the mill, truck driving, selling
firewood and building roads. But in the last ten years, his fortunes have
changed. Unlike some of his associates in the area who got out of logging,
Bowles dug in for the long haul, determined to ride out the upheaval caused by
federal timber sale declines and other obstacles. The perseverance paid off, and
today, Bowles and his son Tony are regarded as not only successful, but some of
the region's best examples in the trade.
A big break came when Bowles got
on as a steady contractor for Potlatch Corporation in 1992. "Getting on
with Potlatch was a lot of hard work," says Bowles, who grew up in Idaho's
Palouse country near Moscow. "I had to prove myself and I just about begged
and scrubbed to get jobs, but the jobs looked good when we got done. Potlatch
forester Larry Chambers never told us we did the best job, but he told others we
did. We try to be conscientious on our jobs."
Always aware of the ups and downs
in logging, Bowles continues to crank out quality work as his best business
card. The diligence produced 9.6 mbf in 1999 for the company last year and
netted Bowles and Son Logging Potlatch Corporation's Best Quality Log awards in
1994, 1995, 1997, 1998 and 1999. Behind the numbers, Jerry defines three
strategies that keep him successful: quality work, mechanization and a
father-son partnership. The quality work derives, in no small part, from a turn
toward mechanization and the addition of son Tony to the business. But Bowles
was never a stranger to forest management solutions. As a small operator, he was
one of the first in the area to sign up for logger education and
Tony Bowles operates the
Timbco T425 with Timbco barsaw.
"They'd just cut the
governor's strip when I went to the class, and I was really impressed by what
they were doing there," Jerry says. Determined to replicate the good
forestry practices, Bowles always tried to keep a light footprint on the land.
Private landowners, agencies and industry paid attention. Bowles used a small
cat to keep logging disruption to a minimum, then later adopted high tech
equipment to keep his small family operation competitive, while still causing
minimal impact to the ground. The move toward cut-to-length technology came in
the early 90's when Bowles rented a processor to keep up with Potlatch
Corporation production demands.
He added a Timberjack 2518, which
Tony notes "pretty much made our company profits." A John Deere 690
ELC with a Denharco 3000 DT Denis delimber tightened up the landing and made
sorting more efficient. The processor takes up to 24-inch logs, commonly found
on Potlatch lands, and streamlines sorting, tremendously important when the logs
are hauled to as many as seven area mills. A Timbco T425 feller-buncher with a
Timbco bar saw is the newest acquisition, enabling Bowles to safely fall up to
28-inch logs. "The Timbco can do in one day what three fallers can
do," says Tony, with his dad adding that the John Deere "can do what
three landing saws can do." "I like everything about
mechanization," Jerry notes. "It's safer, faster and production is way
up. It is boring, but I'll take boredom over a bad back, and I wouldn't trade
back to the old ways."
Jerry Bowles and the
John Deere 690 ELC with Denharco 3000DT delimber at work on the landing.
With Tony operating the
fellerbuncher and Jerry on processor, the duo is backed up by Jerry's brother
and another contractor on necessary cat and skidder work. The father-son
partnership clearly depends on mechanization to maximize profits and provide an
income for two families. Ironically, Bowles initially did everything he could to
discourage Tony from going into the uncertain profession, intending that his son
get an education and stay out of the woods. Aware of his father's preferences,
Tony did the college route, attending the University of Idaho in 1991, then
sawing landing in the summer to pay for his tuition. By 1993, there was more
sawing than studying, and though Tony thought a coaching career might be
appealing, he couldn't warm up to the bookwork.
Marriage in 1994 and the need for
a steady paycheck cinched the decision to log, and he's not looking back. He
likes the flexible hours, the spring layoff that allows him to spend time with
his family, and the money. But beyond that, it's clear he likes working with his
dad and working in the woods. An able mechanic, he can troubleshoot equipment as
well as run it. He's also paid attention to his dad's advice about maintaining a
clean and conscientious operation. Partners in every sense of the word, Jerry
and Tony watch out for each other on the job, knowing that safety is enhanced by
mechanization, but that machines can also be deadly when used carelessly.
The two share a concern for good
forestry practices, as well. "I can't take it when I see people do things
wrong," Tony admits, agreeing with his dad that a good job generally allows
for 16 to 20-foot spacing, with dominant trees left in place. The forestry savvy
is important as Tony and Jerry work Potlatch ground. Unlike many others in the
region who are thinning small private woodlots and harvesting small diameter
logs, Bowles and Son Logging harvests larger trees, and focuses on intensive
forest management of corporate holdings and critical forest health
A recent project near Princeton,
Idaho, prescribes 236 acres in commercial thinning, another 99 acres in
clearcut, and 35 acres in seed tree. The contribution from mechanization is
evident, and the equipment enables an essentially two-man crew to compete as
viable contractors. But what of the future? Does Bowles and Son Logging want to
grow? "We want to stay close to where we're at now," Jerry says, with
Tony also scoffing at the notion of adding more employees as "just adding
more headaches." Jerry, a man of few words, takes his current
"success" in stride, as does his wife Gail. Both remember well the
times of scratching for work, the steady decline of federal timber in the late
80's and throughout the 90's, the closure of the local lumber mill, and the
see-saw of logging in general.
Among locals, Bowles enjoys a
reputation for hard work and sensible logging, but he knows that other forces
beyond his control can turn his fortunes around in an instant. Yet he likes the
work, the chance to be outdoors, the chance to be his own boss - and the chance
to do things right in the woods. He also savors the changes in logging that
steer him away from the dangers of old-time falling and skidding, and allow him
and his son to envision a future in the trade with more safety and efficiency
marked into the equation.
Barbara Coyner has covered
forestry issues and the timber industry for various magazines and newspapers for
over 15 years.
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