Slow logging yields a cleaner profit and an enjoyable working life in the woods.
By Tim Rowland
Ballet might seem a difficult achievement if one’s partners have eight feet and weigh a ton and a half. But few other words seem to fit as Chad Vogel of Reber Rock Farm gently murmurs commands and two mountainous equines who, with a delicacy that belies their mass, step through the forest into position at the head of a white pine sawlog.
Equipped with heavy chains and a logging peavey—a long-handled implement that would not look out of place on a medieval battlefield—Vogel jacks the log a half turn and saws off any stubs that might dig into the ground as the log is dragged. Next he snugs up the chains and backs his team into place.
Two powerful chestnut geldings named Stretch and Swede step into their work, and the big log jumps as if it’s alive. One last adjustment and the pine, 2 feet in diameter, is fixed to a logging arch, a two-wheeled cart that keeps the front end just a bit off the ground so as not to catch on a root or stub. The team pulls the log maybe 40 yards until Vogel senses they are starting to tire. They get a break, then prance along for labor and art, until the logs reach a landing where a truck will collect them at the end of the day.
But this is no novelty act, or living history unit. There are no gaggles of tourists making cell-phone videos and quaffing spiced cider. This is Vogel making a living, as he has for the past 20 years, in a career where process is just as important as product.
It is also, Vogel says, the recognition that, in some fashion, elements of an old way prove it’s the best way—a way that has taken on new relevance in light of a changing climate and concerns about sustainable forests. And it is the recognition that producing necessities as cheaply and efficiently as possible—be it logs, food or clothing—comes with its own set of hidden costs, financial, environmental and social.
Horse logging, Vogel says, “is a great solution for conserving the land while still producing the forest products we all need.”
This winter Vogel is logging a woodlot owned by Peter Paine on Willsboro Point, along Lake Champlain. Traditional loggers with their tree-gulping equipment would have the job done lickety-split, with half the profits going to the landowner and the sawlogs going to a Canadian mill to be turned into the lumber that’s trucked to home improvement stores that sell two-by-fours at, all things considered, exceedingly low prices.
But the price tag on each two-by-four does not represent the true cost of extracting that piece of lumber from the forest. It does not account for the carbon footprint left by big machines or the damage done to the forest in lost habitat, the potential for invasive species takeovers, the squashed microbes in the forest floor, crushed saplings, and trees scarred by brushes with skidders. Those scars, which invite disease, will be visible for decades, as will the deep skidder ruts, indelibly marking the forest with human ham-handedness.
Vogel’s “draft wood,” sawn at a Keeseville mill, is more expensive on the front end, but it has been massaged from the forest by a method in which all costs are accounted for. It’s a technique he learned from the draft-animal program at Paul Smith’s College and honed at the Healing Harvest Foundation in Virginia, where they preach that good environmentalism and good economics are not mutually exclusive.
“It’s not just people over here and nature over there,” Vogel says. In the horse-logging model, each supports the other.
Animal power, whether draft horse, ox or mule, is still most commonly seen as a tourist attraction, with sleigh and wagon rides that add to the ambience of a sugar shack or farm store. But using draft animals in actual production is an idea that seems to be reaching a critical mass, says Sara Dougherty, barn manager and teamster for the draft horse program at Paul Smith’s College. Certainly there is more interest among some students in “slow work” that is more in harmony in nature.
“They’ve gotten tired of fast food, fast cars, fast internet and the whole idea of instant gratification.” Dougherty says. “They really like that we have something so dramatically different to offer.”
While the twin dictates of profit and production eliminate any wasted motion, slow work adds experiences and values back into the mix that bald-faced efficiency has cast aside.
A draft horse is not a machine that fires up with the turn of a key. There are feet to pick, manes to comb, harnesses to lay out and hay to feed. But then, Dougherty says, no one has ever walked out to the barn in the morning and found a baby skidder standing by its mother.
And efficiency can be costly, she says, noting that a year’s worth of care for a team of draft horses costs less than one skidder tire. Vogel echoes this sentiment. Modern logging equipment can mire an operator in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, meaning that forests must be voraciously logged just to make the payments. The investment in horses is measured more in the time it takes to train them and see to their care.
Horse logging is more sustainable for the forest and the planet, but it’s also a salve for the frayed nerves of the modern world. It’s hard work, but also enforced relaxation, because horses and bad moods don’t mix. When entering the barn, “it’s a moment to slow down and be calm,” Dougherty says. “Because anxiety will translate to the horse.”
So students take time to clear their minds before they set to work, noticing the way the animal eats, or discerning the meaning behind the twitch of an ear. Working with draft animals values the “soft skills of communication and time management,” Dougherty says, over producing as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. Some click with the animals, some don’t.
One who does is Dan D’Apice, a military veteran and Paul Smith’s student. He says he never so much as petted a horse before coming to the school. But he finds in the program an appealing contrast as he steps from a 21st century computer class into the realm of a 19th century technology.
D’Apice, a parks and recreation major from western New York, says he is eyeing a career in which draft animals can play a role. Part of that desire is fueled by the mission of sustainably managed forests. But he also likes working with colleagues who lack the agendas or baggage of the modern world.
“I can have the worst day of the whole school year, but when I give the horses an apple they love me,” he says.
Stretch and Swede, Vogel’s pair, are working, but they are also being trained as draft animals destined for Full and By Farm in Essex, a community supported agriculture operation where they will plow, mow and rake the fields. Their ancestors might recognize the name Essex, since the breed, Suffolk Punch, originated in a neighboring English county. The name “Punch” comes from the fact that they pack a lot of it. The breed was almost lost to time with the advent of motorization, but has made a resurgence as draft animals have made something of a comeback.
At 3, they are still babies and will each add another couple of hundred pounds to their frames. When worked properly, they thrive doing what they have been bred to do. Maybe no one can say what goes on inside the head of a horse, but those who know them best say they take a form of satisfaction in their jobs. Certainly they like the routine, and they achieve a rhythm with the teamster. They know when to work and when it’s OK to rest.
“They don’t mind the sound of the chain saw, because when it’s running they’re not working,” Vogel says. As he’s trimming up a log, Vogel thoughtfully points the team toward a young beech, where Stretch and Swede gorge on the brassy leaves while exchanging furtive glances, like two little boys who think they are getting away with something.
By early afternoon, Vogel—distracted by a couple of well-meaning journalists—has negotiated four logs through a forest on Willsboro Point to the landing. One, a smaller, knottier log from the top of a tree, will wind up at the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga. There won’t be any money in that one when all is said and done, not for a horse logger. The other three, however, will make it to the Keeseville sawmill, where they will become boards, decorative slabs, flooring or cabinets—products sold at Reber Rock. Buyers will pay a premium for this sensitively harvested wood, or at least it seems that way on the surface. But along with lumber, they are buying the planet’s future.
“You don’t have to have a woodlot to support good forestry,” Vogel says.
Vogel’s carbon footprint is represented by a can of gas for his saw, and a couple bottles of bar and chain oil. And the difference in woodlots that have been logged and those that have not can be difficult to tell. The trees to be harvested have been carefully selected, and since immediate profit and efficiency are not the primary goals, Vogel removes less desirable trees first, letting high-quality trees size up for future logging, while opening the canopy for smaller hardwoods that will pop when given light and space.
Because every penny has not been wrung from these woodlands in one pass, they will become considerably more valuable as time goes by, when the mature trees add bulk and the young trees thrive. Instead of mowing down the forest for one big check every 75 years, woodlot owners receive a more moderate income from selective harvesting every decade or two. This “restorative forestry” resets the woods to a more natural state.
The logged section of the forest seems correspondingly brighter than the unlogged portion, but other differences are few—save for a handful of telltale stumps. No young trees have been stripped of their bark by machines negotiating tight corners. The forest floor has not been compacted, and there are no unsightly ruts. Instead, the horses leave soft, meandering paths that are perfect for a hike or ski.
“This is really mimicking nature,” Vogel says. “It opens up little pockets for regeneration that produce stands of multiple ages.” That’s good both for wildlife habitat and the overall health of the woodlot.
Not everyone, of course, will want or be able to afford sustainably harvested wood. But Vogel says he has all the demand he can handle, and believes that small differences made here and there can add up. “Everyone wants to be able to build a house, and I understand that,” he says. “I don’t know what the overall solution is, but I like this method.”