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If a Tree Falls in the Forest | Feeling unheard, logging is the underdog industry on Vermont’s working landscape

Written by Matt Crawford on . Posted in Web Exclusives

This story appeared in the Autumn 2012 edition of Vermont Life magazine, and will be available to read for free for a limited time. To subscribe to Vermont Life, and get stories and photographs like these delivered to your door each quarter, click here.

Story by Matt Crawford

Photographed by Bear Cieri

On one swift and efficient motion, Toby Rheaume deposits his Husqvarna chainsaw on the forest floor and picks up a large hatchet. Wielding that, he delivers four rapid blows to a wedge lodged into the trunk of a 60-foot maple tree. After the final whack, he picks up the still-running chainsaw and forces the saw to bite into the maple again. He scurries gracefully out of the way as the big tree quivers, leans and finally succumbs to gravity.

Anthony Laviletta mans a skidder while hauling timber for Gerard Riendeau and Son Logging on Burrington Bridge Road in Lyndonville. The wood is chipped and sent to a biofuel burning power plant.

It’s a transformational moment for the maple tree. In one sense its life is over — its water-drinking, carbon-dioxide-absorbing days now passed. But as it crashes and bashes to Earth, it’s on its way to becoming a vibrant, valuable part of the Vermont economy and playing a role in a tradition of logging that stretches back in time to before Vermont even became a state.

Rheaume, 35, of East Middlebury, is one of an estimated 500 loggers who still make their living felling trees in Vermont’s forests and woodlots. And if he’s pondering the future of this one particular maple tree and how it fits into the history of Vermont logging, he’s not pausing to do so. Within minutes he’s cutting another tree, deftly bringing it down exactly where he wants it in a cacophony of chainsaw noises and snapping branches in a Pittsford woodlot.

Loggers and trees have coexisted on the Vermont landscape for centuries — from the early settlers who built houses and boats with logs sawed by hand to modern loggers who zip through the forest piloting specialized heavy equipment and ship trees to places like China and Russia. In the mid-1800s, logging had replaced agriculture as the state’s leading industry, and while the methods and markets have changed, logging remains today every much a part of Vermont’s working landscape as dairy farming — albeit one that is rarely, if ever, celebrated in postcard images and packaged as part of Vermont’s quiet, bucolic “brand.”

“I think of logging a lot like I think of farming,” said Rheaume, whose brawny frame has been shaped by years of physical labor. “It’s a natural, renewable resource that just takes a little hard work.”

Like traditional dairy farming, Vermont logging faces an uncertain future. While people are still making a living in Vermont’s forests, the number of loggers in Vermont has declined by some 50 percent in the last two decades. More problematic is that Vermont loggers increasingly find themselves at the mercy of world economics. Logging equipment is jaw-droppingly expensive, fuel and insurance prices take their toll, the U.S. housing crash and foreign competition hamper demand and, as it is with dairy farming, there seem to be fewer young Vermonters turning to logging as a way to make a living. Logging also has a public-relations problem. Where a wagon of hay bales passing by seems comforting, a truckload of felled trees makes some uneasy. We wonder if the forests can sustain the cutting. People, generally speaking, just aren’t lined up to support logging the way they are farming.

Mike Currie at a job site on Route 114 in Norton.

“There are some causes for concern about the future of logging in Vermont,” said Steven Sinclair, director of forests for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. “To be honest, I don’t really see us expanding, but I do think we can hold our niches. That’s about as optimistic as I can get.”

The place that logging occupies in Vermont remains significant. The last time Vermont officially took a detailed look into the wood-products industry was 2007. That year, the North East State Foresters Association issued a report that estimated the annual contribution of forest-based manufacturing and forest-related recreation and tourism (including hiking and camping) to Vermont’s economy to be more than $1.5 billion. By comparison, that’s about twice the ski industry’s estimated yearly impact on Vermont. “Our economy here has really been based on the rich, vast forested resources we have around us,” said Sinclair. “That report shows us just how much of an economic force forestry is in this state.” To be fair, loggers like Rheaume are only a part of that $1.5 billion: Included in that total are wood-products manufacturers, paper manufacturing and furniture makers. But in reality, it is loggers that provide the vital link in the entire process — harvesting trees off the landscape and delivering them to the mills and log yards.

Sinclair has numbers that underscore just how busy Vermont’s remaining loggers are. “If we equate all of the wood we cut on an annual basis and turn that into cords,” he said, “we’re cutting about one million cords a year. Those are trees being made into chips for fuel, trees that get put into lumber, trees that get made into everything from baseball bats to salad bowls, and trees that are cut into firewood.”

Today, firewood represents about a third of the total amount of wood cut in Vermont, but it wasn’t always that way. In the mid-1800s, Burlington was one of the busiest timber ports in America, with both homegrown lumber and timber from Canada and New York being shipped down Lake Champlain. On the eastern side of the state, the Connecticut River proved a valuable artery for the timber trade.

In a 1959 history of Vermont forestry, Perry Merrill, the man who established Vermont’s system of forests and parks, described the early days of logging. “The Connecticut River was mainly a logging stream,” wrote Merrill. “Large numbers of logs in the early days were floated down to mills located in Massachusetts.” Beyond mills, other industries relied on Vermont’s trees. The state’s forests were slashed aggressively and with little thought of sound ecological practices throughout much of the 1800s — for charcoal for the iron industry, for fuel for steam engines and for pulp needed by paper mills. By the mid- to late-1800s, about 80 percent of the state was devoid of trees, including almost all the land below an elevation of 2,000 feet. Logging was replaced by farming.

Trees, of course, don’t disappear forever, and the unregulated cutting during the 19th century gave way to generations of conservationists, such as Merrill and Middlebury’s Joseph Battell, who sought a balance between conservation and working forests. By the end of the 20th century, Vermont was about 80 percent forested, and regulations that allowed for logging but protected the environment were in place. Today, Vermont’s mix of high-quality hardwoods, such as maple, ash and oak, remains in relatively high demand despite a fickle economy, and that demand keeps Vermont loggers gainfully employed — however tenuously.

“It’s not as busy as it used to be,” said Russ Barrett, 65, a Washington County forester who works as the intermediary between landowners and loggers. “It’s harder to make a living in the whole timber products industry in general, but we are fortunate to be one of the few places in the world that grows some quality hardwoods.”

>>Related: To see a slide show of Bear Cieri’s logging photos, click here

Detail of a muddy skidder tire on a Mike Currie Logging job site on Route 114 in Norton.

In John Anderson’s East Middlebury log yard sit the results of Toby Rheaume’s cutting. It’s more than just trees felled by Rheaume, however — some 22 species of Vermont trees are here, purchased from loggers all over the state. Anderson has them sorted by species and quality, ready to be shipped away. Depending on the species, the trees will be sent as close as Rutland to be made into plywood or as far away as China to be used in toys or furniture.

Anderson, 40, owns a business called Canopy Timber Alternatives. After graduating from Middlebury College, he started as a small logger, using horses to skid the logs out of the woods. Anderson said he morphed into a log broker, and while he still bids on logging jobs and hires loggers, including Rheaume, to perform the cutting, he no longer refers to himself as a logger. (“I’m not out there in the woods, running saws, cutting trees,” said Anderson. “To call myself a logger is a disservice to the hard-working guys in the woods every day.”)

With his tree-cutting experience as one reference point and his global business as another, Anderson sees a future for two types of Vermont loggers: the big fully mechanized operations, capable of clearing large swaths of land quickly, and the smaller operators, selectively cutting within just a few acres at a time with a chainsaw and small skidders.

“It’s evolved into two different tracks,” said Anderson. “Big or small, and there’s not really much in between.”

Here again, the comparison to dairy farming arises.

“We have this nostalgic view of the dairy industry of a farmer in coveralls and 20 cows just getting by. In logging, we have this view of the logger with a rusty old pickup truck and a dirty shirt,” said Sinclair. “The reality is that a lot of our loggers are big operations that have to be savvy businesspeople to exist in these economic conditions.”

Fully mechanized logging operations appear to be the way of the future. Sinclair said more of Vermont’s loggers are turning to using massive harvesting machinery that is safer and quicker than boots-on-the-ground logging. But the equipment is expensive too. At the 2012 Northeastern Forest Products Equipment Expo, held at the Champlain Valley Exposition in May, loggers, foresters and sawmill operators scoped out the latest and greatest logging equipment, some with price tags as high as $650,000.

Vermont, however, poses challenges for the large cutters who are beginning to define the face of the state’s logging industry. Steep terrain and a lack of huge tracts of softwood will always be limiting factors. Vermont’s pattern of landownership has also changed in the past 20 years, with large paper companies, like the former Champion International, dividing and selling off tens of thousands of acres, often to smaller, private landowners who don’t depend on a timber harvest cycle to pay the bills. Additional hurdles include a scarcity of local sawmills and legislation that regulates cuts over 40 acres.

Lastly, public sentiment rarely does loggers any favors.

“A guy tells somebody he’s a logger and right away one eyebrow goes up,” said Anderson. “Automatically, he’s a villain, out there cutting trees, raping the land.”

Here’s where the comparisons to farming come to a screeching halt. “When we have conversations about Vermont’s ‘working landscape,’ it tends to focus just on agriculture,” said Sinclair. “The logger doesn’t seem to be treated with the same sense of value as the farmer does.”

From left to right: Ryan Riendeau, 21, Gerard Riendeau and Anthony Laviletta stand in front of a load of timber at a job on Burrington Bridge Road in Lyndonville.

Anderson wonders if part of loggers’ reputation is a byproduct of the insular personalities that many loggers seem to possess. There’s little room for conversation among the constant din of chainsaws, falling trees and diesel-powered skidders. “Cutting trees has never been an easy job,” said Anderson, “and the people who do it for a living, all day in the woods, don’t really have to interact with each other. That’s part of the reason they’re out there to begin with.”

Even Rheaume, who is personable and easygoing (he serves as his son’s Little League coach in his spare time), admits the independence is part of what lured him to logging. “I’m kind of my own boss out here,” he said. “It’s just me, the saw and the trees.”

And after that brief period of reflection, he’s done talking. He puts his orange helmet back on his sweat-soaked head, scrambles up a side hill, finds a tree marked for cutting and fires up the chainsaw.

This story appeared in the Autumn 2012 edition of Vermont Life magazine, and will be available to read for free for a limited time. To subscribe to Vermont Life, and get stories and photographs like these delivered to your door each quarter, click here.

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