I have always been intrigued by the small-scale. Don’t misunderstand—industrial-scale sawmills, for example, are absolutely astonishing, and I have had many hours of enjoyment touring and observing the production processes at such facilities. Even so, nothing piques my interest quite like the guy with a portable gas-powered sawmill cutting boards for a friend of a friend who is planning to build a camp this spring. These sorts of businesses are not necessarily high-production operations, and they do not occupy a significant portion of the industry, but none of that is necessary to fill an incredibly important niche in the market. The same concept holds true for virtually all aspects of the forest products industry, especially logging.
Gone are the days of horses and cross-cut saws. Equipment in the woods these days is large and heavy. Feller-bunchers, grapple skidders, processors and forwarders dominate the landscape—and for good reason. With much higher rates of production, these hulking machines can generally bring down the cost of harvest per cord. Notwithstanding the machines’ economy and aptitude for felling trees, there are times when they do not quite cut it (no pun intended). They have the negative consequence of requiring large trail systems to bring wood to roadside. It will vary, of course, but a grapple skidder can be around eleven feet wide, and feller-bunchers are comparable. These machines are limited in reach as well, so numerous trails of at least the width of the machine must be established side-by-side. By the time harvest begins, a significant percentage of the woodlot or forest block will be designated for trails. Not only can this present silvicultural difficulties, but it can be unpalatable to woodlot owners and small tracts of urban forests that want to preserve aesthetics while still managing the forest wisely.
Traditionally, this problem can be mitigated by use of cable skidders. These are smaller, more rudimentary vehicles that drag chainsaw-felled trees by means of a winch instead of a hydraulic grapple. The system fell out of favor in the mid-nineties, but today it is used to preserve aesthetics or to harvest when ground is inaccessible by larger machines. Even so, cable skidders are subject to the same problems as larger machines, though to a lesser extent, and they present another unique problem.
Perhaps you have seen pictures of the streets in Cuba filled with classic American cars that have been continually fixed-up since the revolution. Well, cable skidders are the Cuban cars of Maine. Most of them are old—25 years old minimum in most cases. Companies generally do not manufacture new-production cable skidders anymore, and if they do, they are too expensive for most conventional loggers. As a result, cable skidders are slowly disappearing, and the ones that are around are continually repaired. Eventually, I would wager, the days of the cable skidder will come to an end completely. The question of what will take its place remains. Luckily, as you may have surmised, human ingenuity has provided us with a wealth of options.
While browsing videos of harvests online, I kept coming across these strange logging systems utilizing ATVs with a forwarding trailer equipped with a hydraulic crane. Conspicuously, almost all of these videos were coming out of Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic. I viewed the system at first with great skepticism, seeing it as a set-up that would have severe operational limitations, but the more I watched, the more impressed and fascinated I became. Able to be fitted to wheeled or tracked ATVs, tractors, or bulldozers, these trailers are extremely modular and adaptable to whatever conditions the forest may present. Indeed, a trove of videos and images exist of these systems harvesting in snow and on hillsides and performing a variety of different silvicultural operations ranging from commercial thinnings of plantations to the harvesting of higher-grade hardwood.
The possibilities for such machines are endless! The small size and maneuverability can allow harvests with minimal trail systems and better allow the machine to weave between residual trees to avoid damage to the stand, which can be particularly important in hardwood stands. And of course, there are elements of forest operations that are not as salient as cutting trees, but equally important to the process, such as road repair. The cranes on the trailers, luckily, can be fitted with buckets and gravel beds to aid in these auxiliary operations. At a relatively low cost (comparable to a nice, used cable skidder), forwarding trailers create an opportunity to be the greatest asset to the small-woodlot owner.
Moreover, I always like to try to think of everything in the context of what the future might hold. So perhaps most exciting for me, these systems show excellent potential for automation, having such simple mechanisms. Countless car companies have been investing in and developing self-driving or autonomous vehicles, so this technology is set to blossom. While it may be difficult and expensive to create a robotic, self-driving processor, it is much simpler to create a robotic ATV to pull a trailer and crane. Unsurprisingly, then, enterprising people have been trying just that. While effective use of such technology may still be more than a decade away, it creates an opportunity that could paradoxically make labor-intensive forms of logging slightly more competitive with larger-scale systems.
It is true; there is nothing new under the sun. Trailers like these have existed for a while. However, they are not utilized in the states quite in the way they seem to be used in Europe, and there could be tremendous opportunity for them in Maine. There are, no doubt, countless objections which could be made in regards to economics, practicality, and safety. These objections are valid, but, if anything, small machines and systems like the one shown are illustrative of just how diverse and versatile the forest economy really is. In a world that seems to give endless credence to economies of scale, it can be easy to turn a cold shoulder to the logger with a chainsaw and skidder or the guys with portable sawmills. They may occupy niche positions, but larger systems, with mixes of diverse equipment and operators with varying skill sets, likewise occupy their own niches. There is no objectively right or wrong way to do business in the woods. There are only people trying to make a living for themselves, and in turn, they all add value to our forests and or lives. And that, in a way, is why forestry fascinates me.