Horse-Powered Loggers Converge in Va. for Biological Woodsmen’s Week

10/27/2012 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

GREENVILLE, Va. — The wooded hillside is abuzz with chainsaws. Dozens of large logs are stacked awaiting the next semi-truck at each of the several landing areas along the forest edge. And down the skid trail comes yet another log, dragging on the ground behind a team of sorrel Belgian draft horses.

About a dozen teams of horses — Belgians, Percherons and Suffolks — are busy in the woods on this cool fall morning, the final day of Biological Woodsmen’s Week at New Meadow Farm.

The horses, and the men driving them, have come from eight states to spend the week together to practice, swap tips and promote the techniques of their trade, which they call “restorative forestry.”

The use of horses (one team of mules was also in attendance) to pull timber out of the forest is both attention-grabbing and central to the practice of restorative forestry, which focuses on low-impact, sustainable extraction while improving forest health.

“It’s not about being old-timey’ What we’re demonstrating is that (animal power) is still a relevant method for extraction,” said Mitch Goldman of Fauquier County, Va., one of about 30 loggers who attended the event.

While animal power can’t compete with diesel on a production-per-man-hour basis, restorative foresters — who occupy a niche analogous in many ways to organic farmers — say conventional ways of measuring efficiency and productivity miss the forest for the trees.

One advantage of low-impact extraction, they say, is that it leaves behind healthier forests that provide valuable ecological services.

Another benefit of the relative labor-intensiveness of animal-powered logging is job creation, said Jason Rutledge, the Copper Hill, Va., founder of the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation, which organized and hosted Biological Woodsmen’s Week. Because it takes a person longer to log a tract with horses than it would with modern machinery, using animals means more jobs per forest-acre.

And yes, in the short-term, more jobs and man-hours per forest acre means landowners usually pay more to harvest timber using the restorative techniques that Rutledge has developed over the past 40 years. But because the selective harvesting techniques he uses promote healthier forests and healthier individual trees, and allow for far more frequent harvests than conventional clear-cutting methods, restorative forestry also represents a long-term economic win for private landowners.

Horse loggers can also enjoy a practical advantage when harvesting small forest tracts, said Rutledge. That’s due to their far smaller “cost of entry” that can level the economic playing field between them and conventional loggers, who have much higher equipment overhead, maintenance and transportation costs.

Because Virginia’s private forestland is increasingly held in small tracts, and because these owners also often don’t want their land clear-cut (as conventional loggers might have to do to make a profit), Rutledge and his colleagues see opportunity ahead.

Ben Harris, owner of Sinking Creek Horse Logging and a certified biological woodsman through Rutledge’s foundation, said he has no problem supporting himself through full-time horse logging within 70 miles of his home near Roanoke, Va.

Harris said his use of horses “sells itself,” by generating plenty of attention and, often, new business from neighbors and others who see him at work. Both Goldman and Rutledge, in northern and western Virginia, respectively, also said they have more than enough forestry work available to them.

The group spent the week extracting tens of thousands of board feet of timber out of the woods at New Meadow Farm, which were heavily damaged by the derecho storm this summer. By selecting dead, fallen and mature trees for harvest, the loggers created ideal growing conditions for younger trees and future harvests.

After hosting dozens of visitors throughout the week, the group invited well-known farmer, writer and activist Wendell Berry for a Saturday evening panel discussion. During his remarks, Berry applauded the stewardship ethos that unites restorative forestry practitioners.

“People who use horses in their work are on the ground, where they can see things,” said Berry, long an advocate for strong rural communities that create and sustain a healthy society, economy and environment.

When people really see things — which they can’t do as well from the cab of a machine — Berry continued, they understand them better, care about them more, and take a long-term, big-picture view of natural resources.

“The source of the timber is the forest, not the trees,” he said, preaching to a choir of biological woodsmen who’d spent the week promoting and celebrating that very idea.

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