Column: Looking at logging a little differently

  • A harvester cuts a red pine into sections. Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Stableford

  • Jon Stableford. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 2/20/2021 10:30:15 PM
Modified: 2/20/2021 10:30:13 PM

For good reasons, some people hold a dim view of commercial logging. The stumps and slash left behind create a careless and raw look. Logging trucks rumble through quiet towns, and no one stops to think, “There goes wood to build houses like mine, to lay floors, or fine wood for tables where families can gather for meals.”

We all have felt grief from a lost tree — a butternut in the backyard with a swing or the last elm on the town common — so it is natural to recoil from what can look like a slaughter. But here I am, at the end of a logging project on our land, and feeling pretty good about it.

This project met a requirement for our enrollment in Vermont’s Current Use program. The goal of the program is to preserve land for farming and sustainable forestry by providing tax incentives to landowners and by mandating a management plan and accountability. By most standards our project was small, although the logs piled high at the top of our hayfield were an astounding sight. Logging can be a money-maker for landowners with many acres of quality trees, but for us it was more about improving the health of the woods and opening new sunlight to the hardwood trees we left behind. At this stage of my life, I find comfort in visions that will outlive me.

The forester who developed our plan and the logger who did most of the work prepared me well for the frayed mess of corduroy roads and the discarded slash. As we walked the woods marking trees and planning access, their experience and knowledge helped me see how logged woods, like healthy bodies, will heal. By November I knew the logging would involve three weeks of January, and I spent most of December dreaming of snow and freezing temperatures to prepare the ground.

When the logging began, my boyish excitement propelled me into the woods every day to see the machines at work.

A “harvester” looks like an excavator with an ingenious head, instead of a shovel, that can seize a tree and cut it at the stump, turn it horizontally, then cut it into precise sections — 12-foot, 16-foot and 20-foot, whatever is right for trucking and milling — and shoot these pieces into piles. As the harvester advances, it lays down a bed of slash to minimize damage from its treads. I’ve been using a chain saw for decades, but a logger using a harvester can do more work in an hour than I can in a year.

The cut logs are taken from the woods by a “forwarder,” an articulated tractor with a boom to pick up cut logs and a staked bed to carry them — a dozen or two at a time, depending on their girth — to a landing, where they are stacked in separate piles according to wood type and ultimate destination. Only occasionally would I hear the whine of a chain saw, indicating extra care in removing a tree from a delicate place not suitable for the harvester.

I took a picture of the first loads of hemlock piled at the landing and emailed it to a friend in Nevada. “Wow!” he wrote back. A few days later I updated that photo with these words: “Picture the pile growing tenfold and duplicating two more times. Then double that and you’ll have an idea where we’ll be by the end of next week.”

Sometimes on snowshoes, sometimes in high boots, I went down into the woods to watch and take pictures, and at the end of most days I returned with my wife to appreciate the progress. One Saturday, my son and a neighbor joined me for a tour, where I proudly pointed out newly released stands of trees, mostly maples, and light-struck corridors for new trails.

When I first walked these woods as an owner, in 1976, I could see signs of a logging project from two decades before, mossy stumps and the ghosts of roads where the logs had been skidded out. Even with these faint signs, the woods seemed dark and mysterious until I reached a far corner of the property where a plantation of red pine stood in neat rows running downhill to a stone wall. Romantically, I imagined these trees helping to pay for college tuition for my two children. (That never happened.)

I could get lost in the woods until I memorized some landmarks, and then for the next four decades they were a reliable source for firewood. Now, after taking all that firewood and after this logging project, what remains are more trees than when we started.

Still, some people disparage logging. Recently I followed a thread in our local online discussion group where two people argued that the walking trails in Strafford were an unnecessary intrusion on nature. Immediately, I was struck by two maddening paradoxes: first, nearly every step we take outside our homes crushes something living; and second, it’s impossible to appreciate and understand nature without some degree of intrusion. I wasn’t inclined to engage in this complicated issue, but I do believe that we all have to find a place along this continuum where our consciences are clear.

Halfway through our project, I walked the woods with my logger and asked him if he had seen any animals while he worked. “Deer,” he replied, “lots of deer.”

We do have a lot of deer in our woods, but I had thought they would flee the noise and activity the way they do hunters in November. “No,” he said. “Deer actually follow our machines because we leave behind so much food.”

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.

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