Zen of Logging

This is an article that was published in  Pennsylvania Forests, in 2007.

The Zen of Logging

            When I was a boy scout earning the canoeing merit badge, my counselor told me that whitewater paddling is not a strength sport; it requires finesse.  The size and power of today’s logging equipment can lead even savvy observers to conclude that harvesting is all about power, a brutal, heartless profession driven by greed and disregard for the environment and the beauty of creation.  Those who actually visit our jobs are surprised to find that logging requires a great deal of finesse and skill.  Among professionals, our day-to-day job is much larger than just felling and skidding the trees for the myriad forest products we use today.  We must take whatever conditions are present and find the most appropriate way to produce the best possible results.  This is a mindset, a melding of what is and what is to be done.  Hence the Zen of logging.


Logging in winter is really only a part of the harvesting equation.  It is the result of planning involving two areas: scheduling and operations.  Scheduling is made up of the macro-level considerations which led us to conclude that winter is the best time to do a specific job.  Other jobs will be suited to spring, summer or fall harvesting.  Operations occur on the micro-level on a day-to-day basis and involve decisions about how best to actually do the harvest.  We will look briefly at scheduling, and in more depth at operations.


Scheduling is driven by looking at conditions and answering a series of questions.  What is the site like?  Is it wet or dry?  Swampy or stony? Steep or flat?  What are the soils like?  Are they well drained or is there a high water table?  Are they sandy or heavy clay?  Are there endangered species or other wildlife needs & concerns?  What is the harvest prescription:  Improvement, regeneration or final harvest?  Will competing vegetation be treated? Will the site be fenced? What is the time frame?  What does the contract require?  What is the payment schedule?  Are there constraints imposed by roads or access?  Can you work during hunting season?  Are there products with seasonal markets, such as hardwood veneer logs or pine sawlogs?  Once these questions have been answered, the best time of year to do the harvest will (usually) be obvious.


Operations should be driven by the need to minimize site impacts and maximize revenue.  My experience is that if you do the first, the second will follow.  Several facets should be addressed in order to achieve these goals: 1.) What “assets” are present that can be used to achieve the goals? 2.) What is the best order of operations?  3.) How can the weather be factored in? 4.) What logging system can be used to minimize harvest impacts or best achieve management goals?  5.) What is the best mix of equipment to use?

1.) Using assets that are present.  Taking the time to flag trails ahead of time pays huge dividends in many ways.  Fewer trees are damaged by equipment.  Efficiency is improved, resulting in lower costs.  Communication and safety among crewmembers is improved.  Wet, sensitive or historical sites can be avoided.  Natural features can be used to reduce the need for excavation.

In the winter, streams may be frozen and the ice may be thick enough to support the weight of equipment &/or logs.  Locating the landing on a pond or lake is common in northern New England. When the snow is deep, running the skidder out the trail a day or two before you need to operate in that area can allow the snow to re-freeze hard enough to be driven on.  The result is that in the spring you can’t even tell it was used as a trail.  Similarly, snow can be pushed into ditches, allowed to re-freeze, and used as a bridge.  The ground doesn’t usually freeze under the snow.  Pushing the snow off the landing area can allow it to freeze, reducing the need for gravel and the likelihood that the landing will become a sea of mud.

2.)    Order of operations.  When we started the job at Reeds Gap State Park in mid-February, the snow was more than a foot deep.  We started in the day use areas.  The weather started to thaw.  We moved to a north-facing slope in a hemlock stand where the snow was slow to melt.  By the time we were done there, we could move to a south-facing slope that was already dried out.  We lost no days of work, and it wasn’t readily evident that anything had happened in the park; much less that logging had been done. Factors to consider include aspect (direction the slope faces), soil type, and infrastructure such as wires, buildings, etc.  We usually remove the pulp and small sawtimber with the feller-buncher.  Then the stand has been opened up so there’s room to fell the larger trees.  There’s less damage to residual trees and better utilization of the smaller wood.

3.)    Weather.  We have to work around the weather on a regular basis.  If it’s wet, we only fell, mark & limb.  Then when we get a morning when the trails are frozen, we can jump out early & move a lot of trees in a hurry.  If it’s supposed to snow a lot, we try to get most of the felled trees out of the woods before the storm.  It’s easy to miss even a medium sized tree covered by a foot of snow.

4.)    Logging systems.  The cold logging method originated as a way to assure that workers are separated by at least two tree lengths.  Fellers cut whatever marked timber they can in an area.  When they are done there, the skidder comes in to pull the trees to the landing.  Workers are less hurried, less likely to make dangerous mistakes, and less likely to be injured. Cold logging also improves the skidder’s efficiency. Another advantage of cold logging is that if conditions aren’t suitable for skidding, a lot of timber can be put on the ground, ready to be moved to the landing.  It is true that a big snow can bury the felled timber.  This can make the skidder operator’s life miserable.  This is in opposition to hot logging, where the feller must have a hitch of trees ready for the skidder when it returns from the landing.

5.)      Machine combinations. Some loggers have grapple skidders and/or large tracked fellers such as Timbcos.  Others may only have an old cable skidder. We have a Bell feller-buncher, cable skidder and a Valmet forwarder.  We also have a collection of chainsaws.  All employees have been to Game of Logging classes.  We use the Bell to fell pulpwood and small sawlog trees on slopes up to about 25%.  For steeper slopes, larger trees and timber near power lines & buildings, we use the chainsaws to fell.  We use the forwarder to pick up double-length logs on slopes less than about 20%.  The skidder is used to pre-bunch timber felled on steeper slopes and to pull trees leaning towards infrastructure.  We have eco-tracks for the rear wheels (bogies) on the forwarder.  They are used when we’re in wet areas to reduce soil compaction and rutting.  For any job, we must decide whether we have the right skills and equipment.


There are a lot of “rules” in this business.  Very few of them are absolute.  On any job, we can use some combination of the techniques described above. The paradigm remains the same: get the best production while maintaining harvest quality.

Just as a clearcut is appropriate under the right conditions, winter harvesting is a tool in the bag of techniques that make logging environmentally sound.

4 thoughts on “Zen of Logging

  1. sparkyjen

    I love the title of this post. The Zen of Logging cuts deep. I have a brother-in-law that is a tree lover as well. He and my sister live in Spooner, Wisconsin.

    He is a chainsaw enthusiast, but won’t cut a tree that he doesn’t have to. Their property is covered with trees, and their dream of building a log home has recently come to fruition.

    When I see him this coming May, I will ask him to read this post. It resonated with me and I’m learning here. But for him, it’ll be a spiritual moment.

    1. martinmelville Post author

      Many of my environmentalist friends have a hard time believing that there could, in any way, be a spiritual dimension to logging. Once, a fellow Quaker asked me “How can you find it spiritual when you’re out there destroying the environment.” When prejudice is based in ignorance, education is a possibility. When it is based in preconceived notions which we are unwilling to allow to be challenged, It is much harder to address.

      I can’t pretend that most of my peers share my ideas. My basic idea is that if you do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons, the right thing happens. Even if it wasn’t quite what we had in mind.

      1. Sparkyjen

        Whenever I am challenged by a topic of conversation, or a circumstance in life, I look up definitions. Sadly, like reading different versions of the bible, semantics can get all flubbed up. It’s also easy to continue believing what we have always believed, sometimes because our parents believed it.

        I am never stumbled because I will expand as the facts and/or my intuition presents itself. I don’t disagree with other people because I believe they believe. It does not have to deflate my beliefs however.

        Think perspective (s), whistle to clear your head of things that do not resonate with your personal senses and sensibilities, and keep logging on. Peace Be Still.

  2. martinmelville Post author

    Definitions are a good starting point. How did others define “it.” How does the definition relate to my own viewpoint & experience? It seems, though, that many people don’t actively pursue these rabbit trails.
    The things that don’t resonate are worth at least looking at, to understand why they don’t work for you. That sort of critical thinking helps us build a broader base for our own philosophy. To paraphrase 1 Corinthians 12 (gifts) & parts of the body (13), the nose will never know of the toe’s view of the world if it never listens. That is not the same as requiring the nose to agree with the toe.


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