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Potter Logging Reaps Benefits of Mechanizing

Timberline SDL2a Track Delimber Helps Western Logger Achieve Safety, Increased Production, Controlled Costs

By Jack Petree - Contributing Author
Date Posted: 2/1/2001

WHITEWOOD, South Dakota — Arlo Potter has witnessed some significant, tangible benefits to his logging business since he mechanized its operations. Investments in machinery increased production and actually lowered overall operating costs, including workmen’s compensation insurance. Despite the improved profitability, however, he views the most important benefit as being a safer workplace for employees.

Arlo is the third-generation of his family to work in the forest products industry. His grandfather was a logger, and his father logged and then operated a small circle sawmill near Whitewood, South Dakota. Those generations of experience in the timber industry have helped to teach Arlo the value of taking the long view in forestry operations instead of the short view.

Arlo has used his accumulated wisdom to good advantage. Seeing changes coming to the forest products industry, Arlo began to invest in mechanized harvesting in the early 1990s. By the mid 1990s, he had completely converted his company from a conventional business of hand-felling with chain saws to one focused on mechanical harvesting.

Today, Potter Logging Inc. operates two mechanized crews equipped with feller-bunchers that work in coordination with Timberline stroke boom delimbers to harvest pine from private and public lands in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. The switch from conventional logging to mechanized operations has allowed Potter Logging to operate profitably through challenging times for the timber industry, a period when some loggers struggled to keep their businesses going.

Arlo grew up in the timber industry. His grandfather logged the region south of Rapid City in the Black Hills, and his father followed his grandfather into the forest products industry. Arlo’s father was a logger and also ran a small sawmill. Arlo worked in the mill as a boy and later as a young man. He wasn’t sure he wanted to work in the forest products industry, however. He decided to try something new when he entered his 20s, and he left the mill and went to work in the construction business.

He enjoyed construction work, but the soaring inflation and high interest rates of the early 1980s put a damper on the building industry. At about the same time, an opportunity arose for Arlo to contract with Pope and Talbot for thinning and harvesting on company sales, so he decided to return to the family business. He began logging again, starting a contracting business that relied on hand-felling with chain saws and skidding wood to landings.

In the early 1990s, Arlo and his wife, Patricia, who manages the office for Potter Logging and "does everything for a company that can be done at home," as she put it, decided it was time to begin making changes in the business. They began exploring options that would enable them to do a better job of harvesting timber for customers while still making a decent profit. As they weighed various options they looked seriously at mechanization.

Arlo decided that "despite the expense of the equipment needed to do mechanical logging, we could lower costs overall as well as have a safer operation if we made the switch over," Patty recalled.

Increasing production certainly was a factor in their decision, as were controlling costs. At the time, Potter Logging paid extremely high rates for workmen’s compensation insurance. "We had to be in an insurance pool and the rates were very high," Patty recalled. "Worker’s compensation is a big expense. We thought the machines would help with that, and we were right." With mechanical harvesting, Potter Logging eventually was able to get out of the insurance pool and significantly lower its workmen’s compensation rates. The reason: reduced labor and an improved safety record — direct benefits of mechanization. "The savings turned out to be tremendous," said Patty.

The company’s improved profitability was very important, of course. However, what was even more important to Arlo and Patty was improved safety. They took a great deal of satisfaction in knowing that their investments in machinery paid off in providing a safer workplace for their employees. Knowing their employees could earn a living and work in a safer environment meant far more to them than the savings the company netted through reduced workmen’s compensation insurance rates.

Potter Logging did not leap into mechanized harvesting in one big jump. When the couple began looking at mechanization, they decided to start with delimbing equipment. In the area of the West where Potter Logging works, Arlo noted, much of the wood available for harvest is ponderosa pine with some spruce mixed in. Decades of fire suppression have influenced the nature of the forest. Many of the trees needing to be harvested are brushy with limbs growing almost from the ground up. "It’s a very challenging job for a delimbing machine," Arlo said. "The limbs are large and the wood is very tough."

After considering various equipment manufacturers, Arlo and Patty were drawn to Timberline as a supplier. Part of their decision was based on the fact that Timberline machines are manufactured in nearby Rapid City, South Dakota. Another factor was that Timberline was building a new kind of machine, supplying the only machine built as a delimber rather than pairing delimbing equipment with an excavator carriage. Potter Logging’s first investment was a rubber tired Timberline 3530 delimber, one of the first delimbing machines that Timberline brought to the marketplace.

The impact on Potter Logging’s operations was evident immediately, especially in terms of reduced expenses for workmen’s compensation insurance. As result of the success with the Timberline delimber, Arlo and Patty decided to continue moving the company into mechanized logging. By the mid-1990s, the entire logging operation was mechanized.

Today, Potter Logging runs two crews. One operates near the company’s home base in South Dakota and one operates in Montana. Each consists of a Timbco feller-buncher, a Timberline SDL2a track delimber, and two John Deere grapple skidders. John Daniels is the foreman of the Montana crew and owner-operator of a Timbco model 445 feller-buncher while the loggers in South Dakota use a Timbco model 425. The company still has the original Timberline 3530 delimber with which it began the move into mechanization; the machine is primarily used as a back-up to cover for the other two delimbers if they are down for any length of time.

Potter Logging’s two crews harvest timber from a combination of public and private lands under a wide variety of conditions. Much of the timber is harvested under adverse conditions due to the region’s harsh winters and terrain. Some of the logging is done on very steep land. "A lot of stuff we do in Montana is especially tough," said Arlo. "The wood is brushy and difficult to harvest successfully, so you really have to work for your dollar."

The nature of the harvesting jobs also varies considerably. Much of the work available now consists of commercial thinning for the U.S. Forest Service; the thins provide revenue but also improve the forests, especially in terms of reducing the risk of fire. In these thinning operations, trees to be kept are marked, and trees removed are 9 inches dbh and over. The spacing between trees helps reduce the severity of forest fires and allows residual trees to grow faster because of less competition.

Potter Logging also is involved in salvage harvests. Last year, forest fires blackened millions of acres in the West. One forest fire alone in Jasper, near Potter Logging’s home base, burned about 83,000 acres. Potter Logging has been doing salvage work on that burn. Salvage logging of this type will help burned forests to regenerate faster and reduce damage from insects.

The Timberline SDL2a delimber is a vital piece of equipment for the variety of harvesting conditions that Potter Logging faces. Timberline developed the SDL2a delimber with the capacity to remove limbs from hardwood stems. Because the pine that Potter Logging often harvests is so brushy and tough, efficient delimbing is a key element to effective logging, and the machine has proven to be a good match for the application. The Timberline SDL2a delimber has delivered the production that Arlo needs.

"I’ve looked at other technology," said Arlo, "but I just don’t see anything else that can cut the really tough and heavily limbed wood that we have to deal with every day. Our Timberlines really do the job for us, so I don’t see ourselves changing to anything else anytime soon."

It is easy to gauge the benefit of mechanized logging when one looks at Potter Logging’s production. The company’s 10 employees work in difficult conditions, harvesting small but brushy trees with limbs nearly as tough as hardwood. Last year, the two crews sent a combined 28,000 30-ton loads of wood to the mill — that includes a three-week shutdown during last summer’s fires plus six weeks for spring break-up.

The move to mechanized logging has benefitted his company substantially, but Arlo noted that logging contractors looking to embrace new technology should not expect dramatic results overnight.

"It’s a lot of hard work to get going," he said. "The timber industry is a little scary right now, and (the shift to mechanical harvesting) isn’t something that’s just going to happen. It’s a nice way to work, and it’s the only way I would do it now, but anyone who wants to get into the business right now had better be prepared for hard work and challenges."


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