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Winch-Assist System Makes Easy Work of Harvesting on Steep Terrain: Washington Logger Still Feels Pinch of Log Truck Driver Shortage
Winch-Assist System Gets a Workout at Marshall Forestry, Where Logging on Steep Terrain Is Just Part of the Job.
By David Coleman
Date Posted: 2/5/2019
KETTLE FALLS, Washington — Like other loggers, Josh Marshall has had to look for ways to improve efficiency — produce more wood or reduce operating costs, or some combination of the two.
Pricing for timber harvesting is virtually unchanged from 16 years ago, according to Josh. “If we want more money, I have to find someone to produce more,” or find a way to produce it more cheaply.
In addition, his company, Marshall Forestry, has been squeezed by a shortage of qualified employees, especially log truck drivers. “Everybody is hurting for trucks,” he said, because of the shortage of qualified drivers.
Josh has downsized his business in recent years because of the lack of qualified employees, but he found a way to improve efficiency and production: cut-to-length logging with Ponsse machines.
Marshall Forestry has been operating a Ponsse Bear harvester and ElephantKing forwarder since June 2018. The company was the first in Eastern Washington to own Ponsse machines that operate on steep terrain with the assistance of a winch and tether system.
“The machines have 1,200 hours on them now with time on extreme slopes tethered, doing commercial thins with dense, small diameter wood and over story removals with 30-inch Ponderosa pine,” said Josh. “They continue to exceed our expectations on a variety of job conditions.”
Josh, 48, grew up — and still lives and has his business — in Kettle Falls, which is located in remote northeastern Washington, about 80 miles north and a little west of Spokane. It is near the eastern side of the Columbia River, and portions of Colville National Forest are on both sides of the river. Josh has an office in his home, a shop on his property, and has an equipment yard nearby. His wife, Gina, does the company’s bookkeeping.
He earned a degree in wildlife biology from Washington State University and worked as a biologist and forester for Boise Cascade for 10 years. When the company sold off its timberland holdings, his job “went away.” That was when Josh started his own business 16 years ago. He and Gina borrowed some money from her grandparents, and Josh bought a skidder and a ground-operated pull-through delimber to get started, felling timber by hand.
The business continued to rely on hand felling and was moderately successful over the years. “We’ve done okay,” said Josh.
In 2008, however, “everything crashed,” recalled Josh, when the housing industry ‘bubble’ burst and the Great Recession ensued. “No one was selling private timber any more,” said Josh. He invested in mechanized logging equipment and started a crew that harvested timber for large mills in the region.
Josh currently works mainly for three companies with sawmills in the region: Vaagen Brothers, Boise Cascade, and Stimson Lumber. The lumber producers buy timber sold by the National Forest Service, and Josh bids on the harvesting and trucking. Vaagen Bros. takes pulp along with saw logs.
Marshall Forestry performs first and second thins and final harvests. The average job is 300-500 acres, although some are “a lot smaller,” said Josh. His company also builds a lot of the logging roads prior to harvest. Most jobs average about an hour’s drive from home, although some are as far away as two hours.
“The terrain varies, but we do a lot of steep ground,” said Josh. “The easy stuff has been logged multiple times.” The dominant species in the region are Doug fir and Ponderosa pine. Some of the timber he works was planted in the 1970s and 80s and is “just coming on line now,” and is ready for thinning, said Josh.
Marshall Forestry currently has 14 employees, downsized from 25 two years ago, and it just recently went through another downsizing. At the time he was interviewed for this article, in January, he had six employees who operate logging or road-building equipment, down from 12 in December.
“We have the capability of putting 30, 40, 50 loads on a deck per day,” said Josh, “but not enough trucking capacity to get it to the mill. Everybody is hurting for trucks,” he added, because of the shortage of qualified drivers.
“That’s the pinch point: drivers,” added Josh, who currently has eight drivers and, in the past, has employed as many as 12. “The ability to get the product to the mill” is the biggest challenge his business faces.
There are few qualified drivers with good, safe driving records, according to Josh. “We refuse to employ unsafe drivers.”
The need to downsize in recent years has required him to change his approach to doing business and operating on a smaller basis. Two employees — he described them as “go-getters” — asked him to consider cut-to-length.
“We went cut-to-length shopping,” said Josh.
Josh was aware of companies that make cut-to-length machines and harvesting heads, but he quickly focused on Ponsse, mainly for two reasons. He considered Miller Timber Services, an Oregon-based company with about 150 employees that does logging, wildfire firefighting, and reforestation. Miller Timber Services has relied on Ponsse cut-to-length logging machines and has about 30 Ponsse machines in operation. “I figured they’d done most of the homework for me,” said Josh.
The other reason he was drawn to Ponsse was because the Finland-based company manufactures only cut-to-length forestry equipment. “We were very interested in Ponsse because they just build two machines, harvesters and forwarders,” noted Josh, “Other companies don’t specialize in them.”
When Ponsse first came to North America, the company established its headquarters in Wisconsin and initially focused on the Great Lakes region. Since then it also has opened a sales and service facility in Coburg, Oregon, and it has a growing presence in the Pacific Northwest. Ponsse has a few customers in Washington and is gaining market share, noted Josh. The manufacturer is actively pursuing the establishment of a service facility in Spokane, which would be within an hour’s drive. “That’s big for us, too,” Josh added.
“We wanted to fill the tethered niche, and the Ponsse integrated Syncrowinch is a proven product,” said Josh. Both the harvester and forwarder are equipped with a winch, and they are tethered via a cable to a large tree or another machine at the top of the slope.
The performance of the Ponsse machines has been impressive, according to Josh. “They have surpassed our expectations...They’re 45,000-pound machines, but they act like 80,000-pound machines. I’m continually impressed with how powerful they are for their size.”
How do the operators like the machines? “Love ’em,” he replied.
Operating the winch-assisted machines has been a learning experience, acknowledged Josh. “No one else has that stuff anywhere close to us.”
“We’re still learning,” he added.
“We’re kind of a do-it-yourself outfit,” said Josh. “We’ve got really good guys, and we figure out a lot of things on our own…we’ve been innovative and discovered better ways to do things.”
Marshall Forestry has received strong support and service from Ponsse, noted Josh. “Ponsse had an excellent reputation for customer service and maintaining a close relationship with Ponsse owners,” he said.
“Our Ponsse rep, Sean Vann, is an absolute stud and continuously goes above and beyond the call of duty to keep our downtime to a minimum.” On one occasion Sean drove through the night to deliver a part from Oregon. “He drove down and back, 15 hours,” said Josh.
“No sales rep is going to do that.”
Josh has been fortunate to have a couple of excellent operators for the cut-to-length machines — particularly the harvester operator. “He’s the best anywhere. Everyone says it. He’s a prodigy.”
Ponsse normally provides a couple of days of on-site training for a new machine and a simulator is available also. “They left at noon on the first day,” said Josh, because his operator already was working with the machine at such an advanced level and with such a high level of productivity.
With the Ponsse machines and such a good operator, the company has doubled production. “I chose Ponsse to match their ability,” said Josh. “The best machines on the market to match the best guys. We’re doing great.”
The eight-wheel Bear is the largest in the Ponsse line of harvesters, designed and built for thick timber and demanding conditions. It is powered by a Mercedes-Benz six-cylinder, 354 hp engine with improved fuel economy. Double-circuit hydraulics supply just the right amount of power to the harvester head and crane. The new transmission and engine technology enable accurate stability control and efficient operation on steep slopes. The cabin offers plenty of storage space, as well as features to keep the operator working comfortably all day, including ergonomic-friendly controls and excellent visibility. The engine technology and improved hydraulics have enabled extending service intervals, increasing working hours, and reducing operating costs.
The ElephantKing forwarder, available as a six- or eight-wheel machine, is designed for extremely demanding conditions and heavy loads. With its powerful engine and tractive force, it can transport 20 tons of wood, even on sloping terrain. It features a powerful loader and flexible drive transmission and loader control system. Other features include durable frame structure, sturdy cylinder-powered frame oscillation lock, and strong bogies. High ground clearance ensures smooth, care-free operation.
(For more information about Ponsse, visit www.ponsse.com or call the company’s North American headquarters in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, at (715) 369-4833.)
Josh is “out in front” most days, looking at jobs or preparing bids for jobs. However, he runs most of the low-boy trailer hauling machines and also still runs a Husqvarna chainsaw. “I’m a laborer at heart,” he said. “Any of the hand felling that needs to be done for the outfit, I do it.”
Besides the cut-to-length crew, a tree-length crew normally operates with a feller-buncher, one or more skidders, a track machine with a processor head and a loader. For tree-length operations, Josh has a mixed fleet of machines — Cat, Tigercat, Linkbelt, John Deere, and Waratah.
The harvester operator places logging slash in front of the machines to create a mat to follow. For the other crew, slash accumulated within 200 feet of houses or roads is piled and burned to reduce the risk of fire.
The mills are operating steadily, and the Forest Service has begun offering more timber for sale. At the time Josh was interviewed for this article, the company was working on a state forest timber sale of about 200 acres, removing over story and large pines above advancing regeneration.
Josh is active in the Washington Contract Loggers Association, which has a Master Logger education program. “All our guys go through that in order to maintain Master Logger status.” They are required to earn continuing education credits each year.
Josh and Gina have three children.
He enjoys time with his family on a houseboat on a lake in the summer, and watching his children play basketball during the winter.
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