Guest contributor, Ryer Becker, talks about timber harvesting in the northwestern US and how productivity, safety and sustainability have been positively impacted by advances in equipment and technology.
— Ryer Becker
Since the days of the axe and crosscut saw, innovation and ingenuity have defined the logging industry. From the earliest adaptations of the chainsaw to current development efforts around machine automation, the logging industry has embraced an innovation mindset to move the industry forward. While not all attempts have proven successful, it is this continued pursuit of improvement that has helped equip the logging industry with the tools necessary to address the many challenges facing the management of our forest resources.
Over the last ten to fifteen years, significant advancements in mechanization and technology have resulted in changes to logging operations around the world. In many cases, these advances have provided improved solutions for steep slope operations and other environments which have historically proved challenging for mechanized, ground-based operations. Given the steep terrain encountered throughout much of the northwestern United States, many logging contractors in the region have quickly adopted these mechanized systems.
In addition to offering the potential for improved production, contemporary, mechanized harvesting equipment also supports safer timber harvests. Historically, two of the most hazardous tasks performed on logging operations have been manual tree felling and hooking on cable operations. While these are important roles in many operations, the increased availability of mechanized alternatives has prompted contractors to pursue safer and more productive options when feasible. Mechanization places workers within reinforced, ergonomic, and conditioned equipment cabs, providing protection from falling debris, extreme heat and cold, and inclement weather. It also reduces fatigue and bodily wear and tear and minimizes the risk of injury associated with slips, trips and falls.
Leveling cabs and winch-assist systems are two technologies advancing ground-based timber harvest operations throughout the northwestern United States. For many contractors without cable logging capabilities, these advances provide new opportunities to work in areas that previously would have been too challenging, unproductive, or unsafe for traditional ground-based equipment. Mechanization increases contractor competitiveness and access to timber harvest opportunities that were previously infeasible. Contractors running cable logging sides have also benefitted from many of these same advancements.
JEM Forestry’s new LX830E opening up a new harvest unit outside of Elk River, Idaho.
Over the last five years, Justin Everhart, owner of JEM Forestry in north-central Idaho, has worked to establish himself as an industry innovator, adopting new technologies into his daily operations. For Justin and his five employees, this investment means future-proofing the operation and ensuring the crew can produce at a high level while simultaneously doing right by the land on which they work. Supported by Triad Machinery, JEM has operated a fully mechanized logging side since 2020, finding great success using several Tigercat machines. The core operation consists of two cutting machines, a processor, two shovels, a grapple skidder, and a winch machine. The system allows the crew to operate safely and productively on all but the steepest, most challenging terrain where cable operations become a necessity. Justin first mechanized his felling operations in 2020 with the acquisition of a Tigercat LX830D feller buncher. He has since upgraded to the new LX830E. Long tracks with extended grousers provide additional traction and optimal weight distribution, which helps mitigate soil disturbance and track slippage when working in steep areas. When necessary, JEM operates the LX830E with a winch assist system to further increase the safe operating range, while maintaining high production and minimal ground disturbance.
While feller bunchers remain the primary felling option throughout the region, since 2014, shovel loggers have become a staple of
JEM Forestry testing out the steep slope capabilities of the Tigercat 635H swing boom.
many logging operations. Shovel loggers, like the Tigercat LS855E, offer contractors a productive felling and forwarding solution on both gentle and steep terrain. A shovel logger equipped with a directional felling head allows a single operator to both fell and shovel trees. The machine has been used as an effective alternative to some short line cable operations on marginal cable ground throughout the region.
Elsewhere in the region, winch assisted mechanized felling and pre-bunching ahead of a yarder has been shown to increase production versus manual felling operations, while also capturing the added safety benefits.
JEM has operated a fully mechanized logging side since 2020, finding great success using several Tigercat machines.
— Ryer Becker
In the northwestern US, most operations entail whole tree extraction to the landing or roadside using skidders, shovels or yarders. The integration of tethered systems has also resulted in the use of winch assisted grapple skidders. Some new equipment offerings have been purposely designed for these applications. For instance, the Tigercat 635H swing boom skidder combines the power, low ground pressure and functionality of a six-wheel drive skidder with the added versatility of a swing boom.
Tigercat 180 yarder owned and operated by Todd Cleveland based in Lewiston, Idaho. This harvest outside of Helmer required
two-stage extraction. A Tigercat LX830D and 635H felled, skidded, and pre-bunched. Then, the logs were yarded using the
grapple carriage-equipped 180 to avoid a stream within the harvest unit. The ability to fully suspend the loads made it possible
to successfully yard across the sensitive area without disturbing the stream.
When working on steep, rugged terrain, it can be challenging to manoeuvre a skidder to the positions necessary to gather bunches. The swing boom allows the operator to easily access bunches along the skid trail with limited travel. The ability to keep the skidder correctly positioned on the slope improves stability and safety while decreasing the amount of ground traversed by the skidder for less site disturbance.
Despite the advances in ground-based logging equipment, various timber harvesting scenarios in the northwestern US still necessitate cable logging systems. New advances in equipment are increasing the safety and capabilities of these logging operations, and mechanized grapple carriages are being increasingly integrated into yarding systems. The use of these new carriages reduces worker exposure to hazardous conditions as there is no requirement to send workers over the hill to set chokers. When combined with contemporary hydraulic yarders, like the Tigercat 180, contractors can conduct safe and productive operations in the most challenging conditions.
Ensuring the execution of safe, sustainable, and productive timber harvesting operations across all conditions is vital for promoting the continued health and resilience of forestlands and a successful logging industry. As mechanization and advanced technologies continue to transform timber harvesting operations throughout the northwestern United States, contractors continue to learn how best to utilize the full capabilities of these systems.
Forest operations occur in dynamic environments with numerous operational and environmental factors in play. While a one-size-fits-all approach is not feasible, understanding the capabilities and limitations of the different available technologies allows contractors to identify how these different pieces of equipment can best serve their unique operational needs. The ingenuity of the expert contractors on the ground will continue to push the logging industry towards a safer, more sustainable, and productive future.
Ryer Becker is a research assistant professor
of forest operations in University of Idaho’s
College of Natural Resources in the Department
of Forest, Rangeland, and Fire Sciences. Ryer
holds a Bachelor’s degree in Ecological Forest
Management and Forest Operations from Paul
Smith’s College and received his Master’s and
PhD degrees from the University of Idaho prior
to joining the department as research faculty in
2022. His research focuses on the integration
of mobile technologies, remote sensing, and
GIS into the planning and execution of timber
harvesting and forest operations. More recently,
his work has focused on workforce development
and education efforts. Ryer grew up exploring
forests with his father and grandfather, which
instilled an appreciation and respect for the
natural world at a young age. This has since
translated into a passion for supporting the
continued health and resilience of forestlands.