"Logger World"

March 1, 2008

Had a rough day at the office? A stressful commute, a traffic jam, paper jam in the copier machine? The coffee-maker broke or you broke a fingernail?

Welcome to "Logger World" where something breaks every single day! In logger world, having a really bad day might mean thrashing to escape from the submerged cab of an inverted 10-ton log skidder and swimming against an icy river current.

As his name suggests, Arthur E. Cutter Jr., 42 comes from a logging family. He has – as the saying goes – "sawdust in his veins." He's been involved in woods work for as long as he can remember. In February, Cutter's green Timberjack skidder slid sideways off a bridge on the Sugar River in Croyden, landing upside down in 10 feet of water. The windows blew-in and the cab instantly flooded. Cutter pushed against the jammed skidder door. A block of river ice was caught between the massive tire and the door. Somehow Cutter wriggled and fought his way out of the submerged cab with his clothing catching and tearing as he thrashed through a foot-wide opening to escape. Now out of air, he prepared to inhale water knowing he'd drown. A last chance: like Houdini, Cutter followed air bubbles upward out of the chaos and darkness to reach the surface.

Cutter then struggled in the icy cold river current choked with blocks of ice. He hauled himself out of the water and up onto the scraper blade of his skidder. Somehow, he doesn't remember exactly, he found himself up on the deck of the bridge – alone. He staggered to the nearby timber landing where his father, Arthur Cutter, Sr. and a trucker were loading a woodchip van. They watched young Arthur collapse in the snow. He'd only been gone 20 minutes. Arthur Cutter Sr. got his son out of his sodden and shredded shirt and into a dry jacket, put him in the pickup truck and drove him to the hospital where he was treated for hypothermia and a concussion.

Lean and rangy, Cutter is shy in quiet country-boy fashion. If not for previous diving experience, he likely wouldn't have survived the accident. Cutter is a professional logger with 25 years of experience. He was voted "Outstanding Logger of the Year" in 2003 by the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association and served as past Chair of the NH Timber Harvesting Council. Cutter represented New Hampshire loggers for the American Loggers Council at a conference held in Washington DC where he also spoke to inner city school children about his profession.

Above all else, Cutter is a survivor – a member of a rare breed of tough, independent professional loggers who survive boom and bust business cycles of the ever-changing wood market in New England.

With increased mechanization, logging is an expensive business and remains very dangerous. Mechanical breakdowns are a daily fact of life when working with complex equipment outdoors in all seasons. Wheels, tracks and gears turn by the grace of grease, diesel fuel and pressurized hydraulic oil delivered by electric pumps and a maze of hoses tied to a web of wiring, fuses, switches and pressure gauges.

Mechanized equipment for whole tree harvesting includes a "feller-buncher" that typically runs on tracks like an excavator. Instead of a bucket it has a mechanical cutting head with hydraulic fingers that grasp trees firmly while a spinning hot saw blade slices them off the stump. The machine can carry several whole trees upright to an opening along a skidder trail where they are lowered to the ground. A "grapple skidder" with long grapple hooks then grasps each bundle or "hitch" of cut trees and pulls them – branches, limbs and all – out of the woods to the timber landing. At the landing, a loader crane pulls softwood trees through a de-limber before either a huge circular saw called a "slasher" or a giant mechanical chainsaw cut each log to a specific length based on available markets and stem quality. Branches, limbs and twigs from hardwood tops are chipped into chip trailer van to be trucked as "biomass" fuel. Low quality hardwood logs are piled elsewhere to become firewood. Only the high grade hardwood and softwood sawlogs are trucked to a sawmill to be milled to grade lumber.

With daily exposure to hazardous large machinery, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, has ranked logging as the second most dangerous job; commercial fishing is first. Beyond accidents, there are plenty of other opportunities for hard luck when logging. Prices for most skidder parts have doubled this winter. One logger paid $700 for an alternator for a feller-buncher. Another logger had the main bearing of his chipper blow, then lost the undercarriage of his feller-buncher and had a chip van roll-off an icy haul road for nearly a $100k equipment loss in a single week!

In addition to mechanical breakdowns, fuel prices have soared. It now costs about $1 per mile to drive a chip van or log truck whether loaded or empty. Insurance rates are exorbitant and road regulations are getting more restrictive. Winter weather, including a dozen snow, rain and ice storms this year, have created additional operating difficulties. Most loggers report mud beneath the thick snow pack on ground that remained unfrozen when the first snowfall arrived last December.

In the past year, the entire forest products industry has experienced multiple related challenges. This winter, a steep economic downturn in housing construction and a slump in demand for white pine sawlogs which has many sawmills limiting or shutting-off log deliveries due to overstocked log yard inventory. Tens of millions of board feet of finished lumber is waiting to be sold. Industry experts are increasingly concerned about both logging and sawmill industries in the U.S. and Canada.

According to Hunter Carbee, procurement forester for North Country Procurement, "prices paid for the forest products have dropped while operating costs are still rising: fuel, steel, the price of logging equipment, wages and insurance." Carbee says a downturn in housing construction and stagnating lumber markets have caused sawlog prices to drop significantly. "Mill closures in the North Country have produced a surplus of low-grade pulp wood which has further depressed prices." Carbee cites an increase in precipitation during the past few years as resulting in fewer suitable weather days for timber harvesting.

Carbee buys woodchips from Arthur Cutter and from many other loggers for Pinetree Power in Tamworth. The biomass plant provides power to over 14,000 homes. In Concord, Concord Steam Corp. burns nearly 50,000 tons of green chips each year to provide heat to commercial customers in downtown Concord including the State Capitol buildings. Carbee notes "biomass (woodchips) will continue to provide an excellent management tool for land managers to improve forest productivity, provide good-paying jobs, as well as protect the environment for future generations." The challenge now facing the forest products industry is maintaining the state's overall logging capacity and sawmill infrastructure through the currently-depressed sawlog markets. "Without healthy markets for sawlogs, nobody will be able to continue producing wood at below-production cost" says Carbee.

Loggers return to the woods daily, risking their lives through quick-thinking decisions as they make their living. Loggers need the work and they love what they do. Camaraderie in the logging community is legendary. The raw forest products extracted by hard-working loggers includes the newsprint upon which this newspaper is printed and tens of thousands of other forest products used daily in homes and sold in lumber yards and supermarkets nationwide.

Meadowsend Timberlands forester Jeremy Turner describes the logging community: "When the rest of the world says 'give up,' a logger says: 'let's try it one more time.'" Turner adds: "With the economic pressures and new dynamics from the emerging global wood market and the weather – throw in an occasional near-death experience on top – I can only attribute their survival to shared qualities: motivation, pride, determination and perseverance which allows them to continue logging… particularly when you look at Arthur's accident: within one week he is back to work. It's like FDR said: 'When you reach the end of the rope, tie a knot and hang on!'"

The will to survive demonstrated by Arthur Cutter last week exemplifies the philosophy of more than 1,000 loggers and truckers who work in the forests of New Hampshire. Sheer tenacity and a love for the land are qualities which are becoming rare in modern society.

With the annual Spring thaw and mud season just around the corner, Cutter was anxious to get that skidder back up and running; to get back to work. Turner described how Cutter drove the skidder back across the bridge to the landing last Tuesday. Cutter turned to both his dad and Turner, shrugged and said "I gotta go make a hitch… just got to do it."