Bob Matthews: Low-Impact Logger in Baxter State Park

by Mitch Lansky

"I want this township to become a showplace for those interested in forestry, a place where a continuing timber crop can be cultivated, harvested, and sold, where reforestation and scientific cutting will be employed, an example and an inspiration to others. What is done in our forests today will help or harm the generations who follow up."

Percival Baxter

Most people get into logging because their fathers or some other family members were loggers. Bob Matthews, who went to high school in Houlton, Maine, entered logging, after "bailing out of college" (he was studying forestry at University of Maine) because he needed work and was offered free training. "I never touched a chainsaw before that," he said. Bob started out in landscaping, but was soon working for a contractor on woodlots and in the industrial forest of Maine's north woods.

Bob told me he had, "a romantic vision of what it might be like based on naive fantasies. They were totally off base." Bob found he liked logging, however, but he did not like what companies were doing in the woods. He calls typical industrial practices, "overly abusive and brutal." Most of his cutting was a form of diameter-limit cutting--where all trees above a certain diameter, by species, are removed. In some cases, where the diameter-limits were high, (18 inches for some species, for example) he left some acceptable stands. But this, he found out ten years later, was just the prelude to an "overstory removal." In general, diameter-limit cutting is more high-grading than silviculture. You cut the best and leave the rest.

What Bob found was that logging was geared to removing wood as fast as possible, not to leaving behind a well-stocked forest of good quality trees. There was peer pressure to cut 100 cord a week. Foresters liked Bob's work, but he was paid the same for his attempt to protect the residual stand as loggers who had little or no concern of the residual stand. He was paid for what he took out, not what he left. He started looking for alternatives. He started reading forestry literature. He started attending workshops and conferences. He joined the Low-Impact Forestry Project at its formative stages.

Alternative machinery. Four years ago, Bob attended a class on forest ecosystem management, taught by forest ecologist Dave Perry. At that meeting, a representative of Nova Sylva, a forest equipment company specializing in low-impact machinery demonstrated a mini-skidder, the Turbo Forest 42 C, that caught Bob's attention. Bob was used to working with cable skidders, and this machine made sense to him. He ended up buying it.

The Turbo Forest is a little over six feet wide, while most "small" skidders are more than eight feet wide. It has hydrostatic drive, rather than gear drive. This means it has much better traction and will not spin its wheels. Most skidders tend to dig deep ruts until the wheels hit something hard. The Turbo Forest leaves a very light footprint. Best of all, it has two radio-controlled winches. These winches allow him to do minimum damage while pulling wood to the machine, without having to be on the machine to turn the winches on and off. He can have a twitch on one cable and can pull individual stems in with the other cable, giving him greater flexibility.

Bob started using his new machine on local woodlots. While he was impressed with the low-impact aspects of his new skidder, he was also frustrated by its slowness and by all the mechanical problems. A teenager itching to lay a patch of rubber on the highway with the miniskidder would be disappointed. There is a tradeoff for the traction benefits of hydrostatic drive.

Bob now is very aware of the risks one takes in buying a new model of an innovative machine. He spent many frustrating hours getting the initial "bugs" out of the system. "The company was very accommodating," said Bob of the dealer who sold him the machine, "but they are now out of business." Parts are still available from manufacturers, who are scattered around the globe. Bob now knows his machine well enough so that most repairs are "routine," though he is concerned about the potential for electronic and hydraulic failures, which could be major headaches. The machine will be totally paid for by this fall.

Alternative employment. While describing his experiences with low-impact logging at a conference in Presque Isle, Bob caught the attention of Jensen Bissell, the manager of the Baxter State Park Scientific Management Area (SFMA). Jensen mostly employs single-grip mechanical harvesters combined with large forwarders for logging in the Park. But he had a need for some hand labor. So he made an offer to Bob.

This was an offer Bob could not refuse. "Baxter State Park has been my Mecca," said Bob. He has gone there for years for hiking, skiing, fishing, and camping. He has climbed Mount Katahdin in every season, including Winter. This offer was a dream come true.

The Baxter State Park system. The wood to be cut in selection cuts at the SFMA is marked. "I've been working in the woods since 1973, but never had to cut forester-marked wood until about five years ago," Bob said. He relies on controlled felling with bore cuts to ensure minimal damage of residual trees. With the bore cut, "the trees go where I want them to go, not where they want to go."

Bob has learned that it is best to cut the wood to length after limbing and pull out short wood, rather than tree-length boles. With tree-length logging, the logger tries to cut the tree to line up with the skidder, even if this leads to stand damage. With short-wood logging, he can fell the tree where it will do the least damage, buck the tree into logs, then spin the logs to line up with the skidder. He pre-bunches his logs to forwarder trails spaced 400 feet apart. The trail system takes up less than 3.5% of the woods, compared to 25% for feller buncher/grapple skidder trail systems.

Bob is very aware of stand damage. When I last visited one of his cutting sites, he walked me through many acres before he was able to show me one of his mistakes, a nick in one tree trunk. I spent several days watching Bob cut, and found almost no damage to residual trees and very little footprint on the ground from his machine. In Bob's words, his system is very "forest friendly." "My biggest critic," said Bob, "is me. I do the best job I've ever seen."

Working for the Park has helped Bob to improve his logging skills. Because of the Park's mandate to be "scientific," Jensen keeps good, long-term records that he shares with Bob. "They tell me what I'm doing, why I'm doing it, and how to make it better," said Bob.

Jensen has had Bob do two types of cuts. One is marked selection cutting. Jensen is managing for well-stocked stands with good quality wood. Where Bob has cut, it still looks like a forest and shows much less evidence of cutting than the nearby stands cut by mechanical harvesters. There the trails, which take up more than 20% of the forest, are very evident and so is residual stand damage.

Jensen now has Bob doing gap cuts. These cuts are supposed to mimic small-scale disturbances, and leave scattered openings that are approximately 70 feet in diameter (based on average height of surrounding trees). Jensen plans to make entries into a given acre every ten years and estimates that an individual gap will be cut again in 140 years.

With Bob's gap cutting, the forester locates the center of the gap with GPS, rather than marks trees. Bob does not clearcut these gaps. He makes decisions about where to place the cuts and which trees to leave both for silvicultural reasons and to protect diversity. If he sees promising young spruce, he does pre-commercial thinning to give these trees a head start. The small width of Bob's machine means the gaps are not as extended by woods trails as they wood be with bigger equipment. The forwarder trails to which Bob hauls his wood are spaced 500 feet apart.

Jensen and the silvicultural committee that oversees management in the park are pleased with the results of Bob's gap cutting. For the forseeable future, Jensen plans to have Bob doing these gap cuts, rather than marked selection.

Life in the woods. The SFMA is in the northwest corner of the park, far from any public roads. Bob stays in a furnished cabin in the park for 5 days a week, then goes home to his wife and children in Houlton on the weekends. He sometimes shares his cabin with a processor operator who also works in the park. He does his own cooking. On days when the weather makes logging impractical, "I get a lot of reading done," he said.

Because he works alone, Bob has to work extra carefully. Intelligence, he said, is the best preventative for accidents. "I'm not suicidal." As a precaution, he has a radio phone with which he can reach rangers at the park or in Millinocket.

While the mini-skidder and short-wood logging system have improved Bob's abilility to minimize residual damage, they have also lowered his productivity. The economics of wood harvesting have not been encouraging in recent years, and with the decline of a number of mills, the situation is getting worse. "You can't discount the importance of markets, " said Bob.

With the collapse of Great Northern, the Park got stuck with a lot of pulpwood, which it had to sell to other markets at a loss. This loss was big enough so that Jensen temporarily lowered rates paid to the loggers to spread the paid.

Global markets too are having their effects. Mills in Maine have to compete with mills elsewhere where wages are lower, raw materials are cheaper, and environmental protections fewer. As a result, the cost of a product, such as a 2X4, does not reflect all the real costs that led to the production of the product. When you cheapen the product, you cheapen what created the product, including the forest and forest workers.

"People think they can have a cheap 2X4 and sound forestry at the same time. They don't understand that there are people trying to make a living in the woods, and some of them really care about the forest," said Bob. But not as many of these people are left. If forest products were valued more, this would create the opportunity for major improvements in forest practices.

For Bob, the fulfillment of doing good work in the woods is his primary motivation. "I'm part of a miracle. I see the big picture--the interrelationship of everything in the forest--it's a Goddamn miracle, and I'm part of it. I fit right into it, even though I consume it. Everything I do is with a sense of reverence and respect. To be part of it, you have to be involved in it. You have to get your hands dirty. Blood letting is part of the natural process. Things live. They die. I understand I'm killing a tree. I do it, and I can still sleep at night because I do it with a sense of reverence. I take pleasure being part of the miracle and not apart from it. You can't put a dollar value on that. You can't justify what I do in strictly dollars and cents."

While Jensen appreciates Bob's low-impact technology, he feels Bob would do a great job operating a John Deere 440. It's not so much the machine as the person on the machine that makes the difference. Jensen told me he could forsee managing much of the SFMA, especially where spruce is predominant, using the techniques Bob is pioneering, if he could only find workers as dedicated and passionate as Bob. "If there are any other Bobs out there reading this," Jensen said, "call me. I want 30 more Bobs!"