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Oregon Loggers Face Rugged Challenges

Rottne machines take on mntainous slopes, tough winters of Eastern Oregon

By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 2/1/2005


JOSEPH, Oregon — Firsthand experience can help a great deal with a decision about equipment. Tom Zacharias had plenty.

        Tom and his brother, Seth Zacharias, launched ProThinning Inc. in 1999. The brothers are co-owners of the business. Despite its name, Tom described ProThinning as “just kind of a typical logging operation.” Typical for the Pacific Northwest, that is. ProThinning does not specialize in thinning operations.

        Before Tom and Seth launched ProThinning, they worked for their father, who had gotten into logging thanks to their grandfather. Their father was a fan of Rottne equipment, according to Tom, and was running six Rottne machines when he decided to get out of logging. That is when Tom and Seth started their own business, buying two of their father’s Rottne machines in the transition.

        ProThinning still runs a Rottne SMV eight-wheel forwarder it bought from Tom and Seth’s father. The machine, with a capacity of 16 tons, has 14,000 hours on it. A Rottne SMV EGS six-wheel harvester is a recent addition. Tom and Seth bought it new in 2004, and it had 1,300 hours on it by the end of the year.

        “I’ve been using a single-grip harvester since I was in high school,” said Tom. “Dad got into single grips and forwarder systems in 1994-1995.” Tom was just finishing his senior year of school in 1995.

        “When we were ready to start our own business, we kind of had a jumpstart,” said Tom. He and Seth, who is a couple of years younger, were knowledgeable about equipment, mechanics, and operations — thanks to working with their father. Their experience included plenty of time running their father’s Rottne cut-to-length logging machines.

        The Rottne equipment machines have proven very durable, noted Tom. The Rottne SMV log forwarder with the 14,000 hours on it has undergone some overhauls across its years, including hydraulic pumps, rear end work and gear boxes. Yet that is “nothing unexpected” for a machine that works hard and has accumulated years of service, he said.

        The longevity of the Rottne equipment is one of the many things Tom likes about it. Instead of selling or trading in two old Rottne harvesters, Tom keeps them for spare parts. He said he knows the Rottne machines so well he can easily salvage parts, moving them from an older harvester to the new one.

        Rottne’s exclusive distributor in the U.S. is Blondin Inc., which has its headquarters in Indiana, Penn. and has other locations in Turner, Ore. and Priest River, Idaho. Blondin, which focuses on cut-to-length logging solutions, also distributes LoxMax harvesting-processing heads.

        Rottne harvesters and forwarders are designed for cut-to-length logging, or what is more often called a short wood operation in the lexicon of the Pacific Northwest.

        The year 2005 marks the 50th anniversary of Rottne Industri AB, the Swedish firm that has been developing and manufacturing a wide range of forwarders and harvesters since 1955. The five decades of experience is designed and built into the Rottne harvesters and forwarders.

        For instance, the Rottne SMV forwarder that ProThinning uses is also known as the SMV Rapid, a name that is indicative of its speedy operation. The Rottne SMV Rapid offers loggers a machine that distributes its load so pressure to the ground is minimized.

        Treading lightly on the substrate is important to ProThinning. The company works under some of the toughest regulations in the nation. Environmental restrictions are so stringent, explained Tom, that several years usually elapse between when trees are marked and when they may be harvested. The long interval is filled with meeting regulatory requirements.

        “We don’t specialize in thinning,” said Tom, although the company will contract to perform thinning operations. In thins, ProThinning can depend on the maneuverability of the Rottne SMV Rapid EGS harvester. The six-wheel model ProThinning owns is the basic configuration; an eight-wheel option is available.

        The Rottne machines provide a combination of strength and ease of operation that are well suited for the kind of big timber in which ProThinning works. Big trees are not the only challenge for the company, though.

        ProThinning works in a part of the country where the danger of forest fire is ever-present. No one goes to a job site without water pumpers and trailers. One of Tom’s first jobs, when he began working with his father part-time as a teen-ager, was to tend the firefighting equipment and water supply.

        Transporting water to a harvesting site adds complexity to a job. So does negotiating the sloping mountainsides. “Year-in and year-out,” said Tom, the equipment runs on nothing less than a 20% slope, and often they work on slopes that are steeper.

        The sloping terrain, combined with wet conditions in the form of snow and rain, demands a lot from equipment. But the Rottne SMV forwarder and the Rottne SMV EGS harvester continue to prove themselves over and over again in such tough conditions.

        Tom is the full-time operator of the Blondin Rottne SMV EGS harvester, the third Rottne harvester he has run. He has put 2,000 hours per year on one Rottne harvester or another in the past 10 years, he estimated.

        “I can cut about 25-inch to 26-inch diameter on the stump” with the Rottne SMV EGS Harvester, said Tom. Most of the time, however, he and Seth find themselves working in timber that averages about 15 inches diameter at the stump.

        The mountainsides where ProThin­ning works vary widely in species because the company works at elevations ranging from about 3,500 feet to 6,000 feet. The dominant species vary, depending on the elevation. The company typically works in such species as white fir, red fir, spruce, lodge pole pine, and Western larch.

        ProThinning owns a lowboy and tractor, and it uses them to transport equipment to job sites. Generally, Tom, Seth and their employees spend about two months at a job site, so they do not have to move their equipment very often.

        A two-month job usually nets about 1.5 to 2 million board feet, said Tom. A job that would produce about 6 million board feet would be ideal, he said, because it would reduce travel and set-up time even more. However, such large jobs are rare now, he noted.

        “We’re down to two mills,” said Tom, “Wallowa Forest Products and Boise Cascade.” ProThinning contracts with the mills, cutting for them and according to mill specification. Wallowa Forest Products Ltd. is a stud mill and buys only in multiples of 8 feet and 9 feet. Boise Cascade operates a dimension lumber mill and plywood mill.

        Fifty percent of the land on which ProThinning operates is national forest property. (In some of the U.S. Forest Service timber sales, logging contractors use helicopters to get the wood out.) The other 50 percent is owned by Boise Cascade, private individuals or ranches.

        The person running a particular machine for ProThinning takes primary responsibility for maintaining it. Tom and Seth have found the strategy helps ensure that their equipment is maintained in top condition. Everything “keeps better” in the long term if the operator has a vested interest, explained Tom, who said the company does 90% of its own maintenance.

        ProThinning also uses equipment from Timbco. Adhering to the philosophy of a close association between individuals and machines, Tom and Seth have subdivided the equipment they personally look after. Tom makes certain the Rottne equipments gets the attention it requires, and Seth is responsible for the Timbco equipment.

        ProThinning is equipped with a Timbco 425 harvester, a track machine equipped with a LogMax harvesting head (the LogMax head was supplied by Blondin), and a Timbco 415 forwarder. Seth runs the Timbco 425 harvester.

        With two harvesting machines and two forwarders, ProThinning could work at two job sites, but splitting the crews to two jobs is unusual. “We don’t like to split up,” said Tom. “Things go smoother if everyone works together.” A sub-contractor is hired to bring in and run a loader, and the loader can serve both crews if they work on the same job.

        The approach also reduces the need for additional firefighting equipment and supplies. There has to be a water pumper at every job, noted Tom, and it must be close, given that ProThinning sometimes does welding in the woods.

        ProThinning operates with six full-time employees. In addition to Tom and Seth, who run the harvesters, two employees operate the forwarders. One employee runs the CAT road grader and moves the water trucks, and another employee works on the ground with a Husqvarna chain saw to fell unusually large trees. Tom’s wife, Tara, does the books for the company.

        Weather limits logging to about 10 months of the year. Harvesting begins in mid-May and continues until about March. During the two-month period from March to May, the snow is thawing, and the ground is too wet to work.

        The company can continue to operate in snow that is up to 6 feet deep. Year-round, the three machines with tires are fitted with tracks or chains. Tom uses chains on the front tires and tracks on the back tires of the Rottne equipment and tracks on the front and back of the Timbco forwarder. All tracks are EcoTrac brand.

        “Tires last forever,” said Tom, if chains and tracks are used all year. “It saves a lot on tires from (wearing on) stumps and rocks.” In addition, he explained, the mountainous slopes often get slick, and chains and tracks increase traction and stability.

        The way that Tom and Seth team up with their respective Rottne and Timbco-LogMax harvesters gives them a great deal of flexibility. The Rottne usually is used in smaller wood because of its speed while the Timbco is used for larger timber.

        With the Blondin Rottne and Timbco harvesters complementing each other, ProThinning gains a great deal of reach. “We can bounce around with what we have,” said Tom, even when the terrain and species differ a great deal on one job. “The Timbco is a little better on real steep ground,” he explained, because of its tracks.

        “The LogMax can cut 28 to 29 inches off the stump,” said Tom, although it is not built to handle that kind of weight routinely.

        All the stems are bucked into shorter lengths. “We buck it all into short logs,” said Tom, “16 foot to 25 foot.”

        In the summer, the ProThinning team works 11-12 hour days. In the winter, most days end after nine hours. “We just run one shift,” Tom explained. “We tried double shifting when we were working with dad. You didn’t gain that much — a 40 percent gain — but maintenance goes up 100 percent.”

        Most jobs are within a 200-mile radius of the home base in Joseph, Ore. “In the summer, we camp out,” said Tom. “In winter, we try to get (work) closer to home, so we can go home to our wives and kids at night.”

        Joseph is a town of about 1,200 residents in the far northeast corner of the Beaver State. Is it only 30 miles west of the Idaho state line, a boundary that is marked by Hells Canyon on the Snake River. It is a scenic region.

        “We made up our minds we wanted to live here,” said Tom. Joining the logging industry seemed like a good way to earn a living and stay a part of the region where he and Seth had grown up. Tom belongs to the Association of Oregon Loggers.

        “There’s very good hunting and fishing” in northeast Oregon and environs, said Tom. “We do a lot of hunting and fishing” in their free time, he explained. “We’re big snowmobilers. You can snowmobile at night” and in the months when logging must be halted.

        Just day-to-day on a job site, however, Tom still is able to enjoy the surroundings. “I like being outdoors,” he said. “You see deer and elk and other wildlife — cougars, wildcats.”

        Tom also appreciates the opportunities that the logging business gives him to interact with people. “I like changing jobs,” he said. “I meet lots of interesting people.”

        Although he has been in the logging industry long enough to know the reality of its ups and downs, Tom expects it to even out over time and for forest products to continue to be a viable industry in the U.S. “It’s treated my grand-dad pretty good,” he said. “It’s treated my dad pretty good.”

          And Tom expects logging to be good to him and Seth, as well as their employees. “We really do appreciate our crew,” he said. “Whatever level of success we achieve, they have a lot to do with it. They trust us. We trust them.”




 






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