Magazine article American Forests

A Tradition Born Anew

Magazine article American Forests

A Tradition Born Anew

Article excerpt

Sprawl and smaller lots are prompting a return to the old-fashioned art of horse logging.

It could have been a scene from long ago: A team of silky chestnut horses with feet as big as buckets slobbered quietly as men in red-checkered shirts unloaded gear. Suddenly the buzz of chain saws broke the morning silence in this western Virginia woodlot. This was no romantic replay of the past, but a contemporary crew of "biological woodsmen" making a living in today's forests.

"Logging with draft animals is not a matter of nostalgia," says Jason Rutledge, crew boss and a national leader in defining the terms and the practice of a newly revised tradition. "It's simply the best solution to many current forest problems."

Agreement is widespread and growing. A recent Internet search on "horse logging" yielded not only home pages for horse loggers from Nova Scotia to Texas to Oregon but also help wanted ads from landowners seeking horse loggers across that same continental span.

There were landowner guidelines for writing horse logging contracts, feature stories in various papers on local horse loggers, a directory of horse loggers compiled by Rural Heritage magazine, and the Draft Horse Resource support site, with a chat room where you are disqualified for "cussing or slapping the reins."

What is bringing this old-fashioned art back to the forefront? Ironically, it is modern life. As private forestland gets divided into smaller and smaller chunks, the reduced tract size leads to increasing forest fragmentation. And owners of those tracts are more environmentally savvy.

"The immediate attraction of skidding with horses, mules, or oxen," says Rutledge, "is its low environmental impact." The process of skidding--hauling the tree from where it is cut to where it is loaded onto a truck--causes much of the havoc associated with logging, including damaging standing trees and digging deep ruts in the ground.

Injured trees diminish the wood's future value, and erosion from logging roads and skid trails contributes heavily to sedimentation of rural streams. As Rutledge murmurs a command and his team of horses leans into the weight of three poplar logs, I measure the ruts they leave: exactly 1.5 inches deep, significantly less than a mechanical skidder. Although the crew has been working here for weeks, very few trees show any damage from passing logs.

By comparison, a 1995 study by University of Missouri researchers found that mechanized skidders, which are much heavier and less maneuverable than horses, require wider trails, leave deeper ruts, compact the surrounding soil significantly more, and wound many more residual trees. Plus they're noisy, smoky, and reek of diesel fuel instead of hay-filled barns.

However, Rutledge cautions that, "horse logging can also be environmentally damaging, depending on how the logger operates." One issue: the matter of technique--how logs are hitched to the animals. After years of research, Rutledge adopted a horse logging arch developed by old-time horse logger Charlie Fisher in Andover, Ohio. The arch, a metal bar cantilevered 14 degrees forward in front of the axle's center line, hoists each log high enough to avoid gouging the ground as it slides forward (see sidebar).

Another issue is philosophical. Past methods of harvesting, particularly high-grading, in which only the valuable trees are removed, have left poor-quality timberlands across much of the country.

Although he discourages the practice, Rutledge warns that "horse loggers can high grade just like conventional loggers." Instead, he advocates "lowgrading": cutting the worst trees first, trees individually selected through a matrix of indicators he calls "nature's tree marking paint"--frost cracks, crown damage, presence of certain fungi, and other signs of disease or injury. Research has shown that trees remaining after a thinning can grow two to three times more rapidly than before, adding considerably to their value for the next harvest cycle, which Rutledge figures in 10- to 20-year intervals. …

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