FLORA As the green pickup truck bumped along the snow-packed forest road north of Enterprise, the occupants finally began to hear some heavy machinery at work among the trees.
Hear that buzz? Five seconds and the machine has cut four or five trees, said Mike Piazza of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
He is the contract administrator for an innovative forest restoration and management project under way on over 880 acres of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forest 25 miles north of Enterprise in the Sled Springs region of the Wallowa Ranger District.
Before the work is done, 66,013 trees 2.9 million board feet of sawtimber up to 20.9 inches in diameter and 700,000 board feet of fiber material between 5 and 7 inches in diameter will have been removed. The pilot project is being watched by local and federal officials, people in the timber industry and even by Congress.
The goals of the project are to improve forest health, reduce fuel loading, reduce road density and improve 6.8 miles of existing roads while protecting the soil resource on the 880 acres in 40 stands of trees.
The equipment Piazza heard was a Timpco harvester, a $300,000 machine with a fast-whirring hot-saw harvester head, two pairs of clamps or arms that grip trees and slip them onto a table as they are cut. The boom of the machine then swings around and drops the 40-foot tall trees into a pile with the cut end facing in the same direction for easy skidding later by other men and machines.
Jesse Micka of Joseph said he had been operating the harvester for about three weeks for Bob Zacharias of Joseph.
The fact the machine could sever and hold several trees at once before turning and stacking them cuts down on the number of passes it has to make over the ground. With the frozen ground under several feet of snow, there is very little compaction, Piazza said.
Similarly, the D4 skid Cats Zacharias uses are specifically designed for logging, with a wide base for the tracks, which also lessens compaction. They are smaller than the traditional skidders used in logging, Piazza said.
Bob Zacharias is tooled to handle the small timber and his equipment is easy on the land, doesnt expose the raw dirt, Piazza said.
The temperature was 24 degrees and snow was falling as Zacharias and nine of his employees not counting the log truck drivers hauling to Elgin and La Grande worked one day last week. It has remained cold, as low as minus 14 some nights in the area, which is just below the 5,000-foot elevation mark, with only one short warming spell for a few days recently.
Piazza monitors the ground temperature and said it has remained frozen to a depth of about two feet.
This is ideal weather to work in, said Zacharias, standing outside his pickup and wearing his Logger and proud of it baseball cap. However, the cold has contributed to the breakdown of some of his equipment.
When it gets below zero, its tough on the machines, he said.
Discussing the project, Zacharias said he was certain he could make some money. He has found buyers for the products the project will generate.
The contract calls for him to be finished by March 31, 2004. Working six days a week and long hours, he plans to be finished by March 1 this year.
A little farther along one of the winding forest roads on Kuhn Ridge, with snow piled as high as six feet on the sides in some places where Zacharias machines had plowed, a de-limber machine was hard at work. Operator Dan Martin of Joseph said he had been putting in 14-hour days, starting at 3 a.m. sometimes. The computerized de-limber was cutting most of the logs at 35-foot lengths to be hauled to the Boise Cascade mill in Elgin.
He does 1,800 pieces a days, Martin said.
Some of the smaller stuff, 5 to 9 inches in diameter, was being stacked separately. Those fiber logs will be shipped out to Granger Fiber and the Port of Wilma in Clarkston, Wash., for chips.
Later, vans will be brought in to the numerous log landings along the roadway, the slash will be ground up and blown into the vans and taken to Potlatch, Idaho. About 100 van loads of hog fuel will be produced, Piazza said.
Any remaining material will be burned in the spring as part of the restoration on the project.
Its important to us how the material is used, Piazza said. He noted that even the mule deer, which arent too skittish, like to eat the foliage of the felled trees.
The contract is unique as Forest Service agreements with the timber industry go.
It took special authorization from Congress to get the project under way. It could be the wave of the future, foresters say.
The contract essentially allows the Forest Service to trade goods (the logs and other material) for services (thinning and restoration), said Piazza. The project also utilizes negotiated acquisition, which allowed the Forest Service to award the bid for the best value, not necessarily to the low bidder.
This is one of the service contract projects approved by Congress and one of the first in the nation to be implemented, certainly the first in Oregon or Washington, he said. Before, we were not allowed to trade goods for services.
The contract was developed by a team of specialists, Piazza said, including silviculturist, hydrologists. They spent two days finalizing the requirements, he said.
The contract has quite a few stringent requirements, Piazza said. The requirements cover road building, the type of equipment used and the condition of the forest when the project is finished.
Before beginning logging in December, Zacharias had to reconstruct 6.8 miles of the forest roads, which are open to the public. He will finish by closing 19.96 miles of roads.
The project is in the heart of railroad logging country where many million board feet of timber were taken out in the 1920s. When there is no snow in the area, the numerous rail grades are visible. The second-growth timber is 10 percent to 18 percent pine, with the rest predominantly Douglas fir. A small amount of Western Larch is visible.
Wallowa Valley Ranger Meg Mitchell said, The main advantage was that it gave us an opportunity to test this service contract and to get the best value and result. We had no authority to do this through a timber sale, but there were certain units with special needs. In timber sales, we have to take the highest bidder. In this service contract, we had the opportunity to ask for ideas on how to treat the land.
Mitchell said the project is being monitored closely all the way to the national level to determine if these types of projects have value nationally. I like the idea that I can build sensitivity and quality into a contract and not just deal with the price. This allows us to be able to have a lot more ability to tell the public these areas are being treated with a lot of sensitivity.
The Buck Vegetation Management Project was let as a package deal, Piazza said, with Joseph Timber the primary contractor and Zacharias as a subcontractor. When Joseph Timber decided last month to shut down, Zacharias took over as the primary (and only) contractor, Piazza said.
The project started out as a regular timber sale but further investigation indicated that would not be economically feasible, Piazza said, and it was submitted as a service contract.
We looked at some industry proposals and considered our stewardship proposals that addressed our environmental concerns. Our stewardship proposals were different from those parts of a timber sale. This is totally a service contract, he said.
The project was subject to the normal appeal process and went through that stage, Piazza said.