Two Belgian draft horses in full harness step into position as their handler-a bear of a man in grimy jeans, a sleeveless T-shirt, and suspenders-calls out commands: "Whoa, Ed. Back!" As the animals step back in tandem, the man loops a choker around a felled Douglas fir. Another command and the horses are dragging the tree through the forest at a swift trot as the man jogs behind, shouting directions.
What Montana logger Gordon Paske and his horses are doing is not some kind of living-history demonstration of old-time logging methods. What they are doing is an old technique all right, but they're applying it to some cutting-edge problems in forest management.
While some forest managers are shopping for bigger, more powerful logging machines, District Ranger Dave Stack of Missoula, Montana, is using the lightest touch he can to thin the trees in a treasured section of the Lolo National Forest. Instead of harvesting the big trees and leaving the small ones, he's having dozens of spindly trees removed and leaving the forest giants. Instead of piling slash and burning it, his crews feed each branch through a chipper that spews needles and chips back onto the forest floor.
"We're looking on it as a pilot program on how to manage a very important forest near town," Stack says.
The 1,700-acre forest stands at the top of Pattee Canyon, four miles from the university town of Missoula. At the forest's heart, the Pattee Canyon Picnic Area with its neat individual and group sites is a favorite gathering place for locals. Families walk beneath old-growth ponderosa pines on the well-marked hiking trails while scout troops set up camp across the road. In the wintertime, cross-country skiers glide along on groomed trails.
All is not well, however. Although surveying records show that only a dozen widely spaced trees per acre existed here before 1900, fire-suppression activities over the years have permitted an overgrowth of ladder-like Douglas firs, up to 490 trees per acre in the overstory and 4,000 per acre in the understory. In 1977, a fire in the canyon destroyed six homes in 55 minutes. Western spruce budworm and dwarf mistletoe infest the crowded firs. Trees 90 to 100 years old are less than a foot in diameter, and no longer growing.
Stack wanted to reduce the chance of catastrophic fire, preserve the big scenic trees, complement the recreational …