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Horsepower logging.


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 opportunities, and improve the long-term health of the forest. Controlled burning is socially unacceptable because of the nearness to town. Standard logging procedures would be too heavy-handed because the character and appearance of the area are so important to the community. When the district solicited public comments, people expressed concern about ground damage from heavy machinery, further spread of spotted knapweed (a noxious plant), and the smoky air that results from burning slash.

Stack and his staff devised a plan to thin the forest selectively, tree by tree, skidding out the logs and branches with horses to minimize damage and maintain aesthetics. "We have to treat this area so lightly from a timber-management standpoint that we could never make money," Stack says. Horse loggers Gordon and Terri Paske of Stevensville won the contract to remove the trees and sell them to a stud mill.

Holding a bucket of water for his palomino powerhouses, Paske notes that several ranchers in the area have switched to horse logging for stand management. Concerned about damage to the land, they choose horses as a low-impact alternative, he says. "We've done a lot of horse logging, and it always looks great when it's done. "

What's the result in Pattee Canyon? Recreation forester Joe Kipphut conducts a private tour of the picnic area, the first section treated. Sunlight dapples the ground beneath the widely spaced pine, larch, and fir. Careful thinning calls attention to the huge yellow pines, their bark orange after 200 years of growth. Except for the low stumps and a few piles of slash awaiting the chipper, there's no evidence that hundreds of trees have been removed.

"What's unique is that we're not going after the board-feet," says Kipphut, who contends that the thinning process is closer to European horticulture than it is to conventional logging. "We're selecting the biggest and best to leave." That's not unusual for a developed site, he says, but the Pattee Canyon plan calls for similar treatment of the undeveloped areas over a span of 25 years.

As hikers and picnickers stroll beneath the trees, they won't be shaking their heads over destructive logging. Instead, if they notice the change at all, they'll comment on how lovely the forest is this year. Safer and healthier, the Pattee Canyon forest owes its new vitality to careful thinning-and some hardworking horses.
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Title Annotation:Public Forests; use of horses in transporting logs
Author:Bahls, Jane Easter
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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