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Flying High in Colorado

BTB visits a unique high elevation logging operation in Keystone, Colorado.

— Paul Iarocci

I travelled to Keystone, Colorado with Tigercat district manager James Farquhar and Titan Machinery sales specialist Greg Doyle to have a look at a very unique logging operation. In June, Keystone Ski Resort was well into an expansion project that will add 550 acres (220 ha) of skiable terrain. In addition to a new lift and the installation of snow-making equipment, an important part of the project is the timber harvesting required to accommodate the new runs. This is where the Gray family comes in. The operation is a joint effort between Todd Gray and Mountain Blade Runner (MBR) Helicopters, a company owned by Todd’s son, Bryson. The father-son team is looking after clearing timber and site preparation for the new runs. The Grays are not only marketing the timber to an area sawmill but also have a contract to chip the residuals, supplying a biomass power generation facility. It is a great example of maximizing fibre usage and eliminating waste.
Todd’s crew is using a combination of hand fallers and mechanized felling to harvest the timber. Todd has a Tigercat 620H skidder on site. However, due to the sensitive, often wet terrain, and the steep slopes, it is not the 620H that is delivering tree-length wood to the landing. Instead, a Kaman K-Max 1200 helicopter equipped with a grapple is forwarding tree-length logs down the slopes to the company’s new Tigercat LH855E harvester.

Todd explains that the terrain is wet. In fact, at an elevation of 11,000 ft (3 350 m), there are patches of snow still visible throughout the area in late June. With sections that are too wet and unstable for the buncher, the operation relies on the ground crew for felling, as well as several other functions.

Incredibly, even at this elevation, the K-Max 1200 can lift a 5,000 lb (2 270 kg) payload. All the forest debris must be cleaned up and removed. At this stage, MBR swaps
out the grapple for choker cables. The ground crew gathers and bundles all the logging residue. “All the trees come out with a helicopter and grapple, and then the ground crew goes back and picks up all the slash. It gets bundled with choker cables and taken out,” says Todd. The helicopter piles the residuals at the landing. Later, a chipper will be brought in to process the material.

Another aspect of the postharvest site preparation involves the stumps. After all the residual material is removed, every stump must be hand cut flush to the ground. The idea is to make the ski run surface as smooth and clean as possible. With the steep terrain, that often means cutting the stumps at an angle so there is no protrusion on the down side of the slope.

Todd’s brother is Brad Gray, the LH855E operator. The company only recently purchased the machine, factory equipped with a Tigercat 568 processing head. Brad is impressed with the productivity
and capacity of the head. He is processing mature timber with most of the stems measuring 20-24 inches (510-610 mm) at the butt end and some up to 30 inches (760 mm). For the most part, the limbs extend almost to ground level, making for challenging delimbing. Brad says that limb removal performance is excellent. He also really appreciates having the top saw, commenting that it reduces waste and breakage.

There is not a lot of decking real estate available and not a whole lot of flat ground to work on. The leveling undercarriage has been a saviour. Brad’s previous processor was an excavator base. “You swing up and you swing down. Swinging like that all day is no fun at all,” he says. “By the end of the day, you are worn out.” The leveling capability really improves comfort. Eliminating the need to swing uphill and fight gravity improves efficiency.

There are some challenges associated with high elevation aerial logging. First off, high winds often ground the helicopter. Second, rain or even excessive moisture in the air can cause static electricity build-up in the cables, also effectively grounding the aircraft.

Bryson’s company, MBR, owns half a dozen helicopters. While the K-Max 1200 is the specialist for lifting, MBR has two other types of aircraft in the fleet – the Airbus AS350B3E and Enstrom 480B. The company has a wide range of service offerings. Just a few examples include transporting pipe, installing power poles, running power lines, heliskiing, avalanche mitigation, and firefighting services. According to Todd, “This summer, the choppers are on initial attack fire contracts, looking for small fires that they can land near and put out before they get big.”

There are some challenges associated with high elevation logging.

80 miles (130 km) west of Keystone is the town of Gypsum, Colorado. Eagle Valley Clean Energy is a twelve-megawatt biomass project that has been operating there for about a decade. The power plant generates electricity from the combustion of waste wood and sells it to Holy Cross Energy, a not-for profit Rural Electric Cooperative.

The residuals and non-merchantable timber stacked at the deck will be chipped and trucked to the Eagle Valley facility. The result is that all the fibre harvested from the Keystone site will be utilized. It is essentially a zero-waste logging operation.

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