One logger hangs up his saw
Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three-part series exploring the local logging industry.EAGLE COUNTY – One local logger, Tom Olden, is preparing to get out of the logging business because of a combination of too little profit, too many U.S. Forest Service regulations, too few sales and a lack of mills to process what is cut. The latter drives the price downward, he said, by controlling the price of what is offered for logs, leaving a profit margin finer than the edge of a freshly whetted ax.”The industry is in bad shape,” said Olden, who owns Pine Marten Logging in Eagle. “I can’t sell it to the one and only saw mill because it costs me more as standing timber than I can sell it for. It’s a virtual monopoly. They can set the rate.”There is only one mill within an economical driving distance capable of handling the smaller-diameter logs typically found in salvage sales, he saidWhen there were more, smaller mills, he said, he could sell the smaller logs. “It was my bread and butter,” he said. Changing market conditions and other factors caused smaller mills to disappear and it caused Olden to change what he did. He went from a small logging operator, to a larger, mechanized logger bidding on larger sales where volume cut is the name of the game, he said.Olden now uses a $500,000 tracked feller-processor vehicle that allows him to cut, strip and process nearly 700 trees a day into lumber lengths.When he started logging nine years ago, Olden said the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest sold an average of 22 million board-feet of timber a year. That has since dwindled to about 6 million to 8 million board-feet a year through the next five years, said Ken Cunning, a Forest Service timber sale specialist.The two timber sales in Eagle County this year are the first since 1997, Olden said.”Part of it is [the Forest Service’s] own doing,” he said. “There used to be six local mills that have since closed.””It comes down to staffing,” Cunning responded. “In a perfect world we would have all kinds of people and projects. Staffing dictates what we’re going to offer.”Like many things in life, timing is crucial to the success of salvage sales, Olden said. When standing logs are left too long before they’re cut, they develop weather checks or cracks that diminish their value, he said.Beating the bugsOne of the two timber sales that had no bidders was at an area called No Name, just west of Camp Hale and south of Red Cliff, where approximately 5,800 beetle-killed and infested trees on 81 acres were for sale. Minimum bid on the sale was $3,400, Cunning said. Bid packages were sent to five different mills and logging companies, but no bids were made.”It was within a quarter mile of the highway so there was very little road maintenance or snow plowing,” Cunning said. “They could have hit the pavement quickly and made it to the mill or home a little quicker.”Olden said the bid required a small section of road to be built and that that was too expensive for the amount of timber he could cut. Chris Meyers, who runs a lumber mill in Montrose, said his company wasn’t notified of the sale.A much larger local mixed salvage and live timber sale is being planned north of Vail near Lost Lakes. It’s in an area that beetles have yet to heavily infest, said Cal Wettstein, the district ranger for the surrounding White River National Forest. The Forest Service wants to use the so-called Piney Timber sale to thin the forest to make it more vigorous and resistant to beetle infestation and fire. “It’s one of the few places we can get ahead of the beetles,” Wettstein said.But Forest Service regional timber specialist Bob Garcia acknowledged that the agency is playing “catch up” with the pine beetles.”I don’t think we’re going to catch it,” he said.Because of the cost of logging – it often takes expensive, high-tech equipment – the economics of logging require larger and larger sales, Meyers said.”It’s not cheap. The larger they are the more the more able we are to make an economic unit of it,” he said. “It takes $1.5 million of high-tech equipment to harvest that timber.”Staying in logsThat sale north of Vail is calling for 11.4 million board-feet of lumber to be cut on 1,900 acres starting in the summer of 2006. That’s enough lumber to build 450 homes. If the market is flooded with beetled and other timber, it will reduce the value of the logs to where it, too, may not be valuable enough to bid on, Cunning said.But a larger sale, like the Piney sale, that will take several years to log could attract larger companies, Cunning said.”They’re looking for larger sales that will keep them in logs for a number of years,” he said.A second timber project that went without a bid last summer was on Vail Mountain, where the Forest Service wanted to have 1,000 beetle-killed trees removed. Cutting and thinning timber is one of the techniques the Forest Service is using to reduce the fire danger where towns and forest meet. That will help prevent homes from burning if a wildfire does sweep across forests.Cutting timber not only provides job, it makes for healthier forests, Meyers said. “Salvaging of this valuable material is a benefit to the local communities from the standpoint of forest health,” he said. “Forests are like a garden. They have to be managed.”
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A ski season surrounded with uncertainty kicks off on Wednesday. The six inches of new snowfall Tuesday will allow opening of an additional 62 acres on Aspen Mountain, bringing opening-day total to about 160 acres.