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Surgeons of the Forest

Seemingly anachronistic but far from a romantic vestige of the past, draft horses have gained acceptance as modern, effective, and environmentally friendly forestry tools.

By Michael A. Kallok

Beneath a cloudless February sky, an invisible current laces and unlaces the fingerlike branches of hardwood canopy. Above the drone of traffic that winds along Highway 95 in the St. Croix River valley, a muted metallic clank rings out as Patrick, a Belgian draft horse, rattles his traces. Like a sprinter at the blocks, Kyle, the horse next to him, stares intently ahead and waits for the signal to skid another heavy oak log from the woods.

Weighing more than 1 ton each, these beasts of burden hardly appear nimble. But matched against the heavy machinery of the modern logging industry, draft horses tread lightly in the forest.

Online Extras:

video icon Video of Surgeons of the Forest

"A mechanical skidder simply rolls over saplings," says Tim Carroll, owner of Cedar River Horse Logging, based in Lyle in southern Minnesota. "Draft horses are more inclined to walk around them, and the hair on a horse won't take the bark off a tree."

Like the handful of other horse loggers in Minnesota, Carroll merges this light-on-the-land method of moving logs by horse with exact directional-felling techniques to further minimize damage to surrounding trees. For small-forest landowners, it offers a minimally invasive way to selectively harvest trees to reduce fuels, control invasive species, or create trails. And horse logging generates fewer carbon emissions. When a landowner's goal is controlling or eradicating disease on forested land, horse logging -- equine forestry -- provides an effective tool.

Carroll thinks of himself as a surgeon of the forest, comparing his work to a careful, precise operation.

Call in the Horses

Clad in heavy canvas pants and black-checkered flannel shirts, Carroll and his apprentice Ben Harris of Blacksburg, Virginia, hardly appear qualified to perform a medical procedure -- unless you consider their patient. Today's operation is taking place at Arcola Mills, six miles north of Stillwater. Once the site of a 19th century sawmill, this nonprofit historic foundation aims to preserve and maintain 55 acres of hardwood forest. But in 2005, oak wilt was discovered here.

An initial effort to control the disease with mechanical logging equipment was not successful. The wheels of the skidder disturbed sensitive soils on the property, according to Jeff Grundtner, Arcola Mills' landscape and natural resources manager. Heavy machinery can also damage healthy surrounding trees -- making them susceptible to infection via sap beetles that spread oak wilt spores. Left unchecked the disease would have eventually killed Arcola Mills' native red oaks.

To control the spread of oak wilt, Grundtner decided that the 16 diseased trees displaying rapid, top-down leaf discoloration had to be cut and removed. But this time Grundtner wagered that carefully felling and moving them with horses offered the best odds for protecting the healthy oaks and sensitive soils. Arcola's staff was also attracted to the tangible value of being able to salvage some oak lumber with a portable mill Carroll set up on site.

Back to the Forest

Preparing to limb a felled tree, Carroll pulls sharply on the cord of a chainsaw. The cold-blooded machine fails to spark to life, but its throaty aspiration triggers another round of head shaking from Patrick.

"He's impatient. That means he's ready to go," Carroll says, as a proud smile glints briefly behind his thick beard.

Carroll graduated in 1982 from Vermilion Community College in Ely and sought work as a forester, but the job market was tight. He worked for 10 years counseling at-risk youth before his wife Doreen's love of horses pulled him back to the woods.

"We had three horses, and it didn't take me long to figure out they were going to eat me out of house and home," Carroll says, "so I put them to work."

He began using the horses to plow the driveway and cut hay. Then he found an opportunity to skid some timber off a neighbor's property. "Because I was doing it on the weekend, it turned into a show," Carroll says. "Every time I'd skid a log out, there would be five or six cars parked with people watching."

It didn't take long for people to start asking if he would do some work for them. Two years later he had 27 timber contracts. And for the past 18 years, Carroll's horse logging and his associated businesses -- milling, drying, and turning saw timber into everything from dimensional lumber to hardwood flooring, kitchen cabinets, and fine furniture -- have been his full-time job.

Smaller Footprint

In Minnesota's northern forest, Mark Adams, a 30-year veteran horse logger, cuts everything from hazel brush to 40-inch white pine. But on average, the value of the timber he harvests is less than the oak, walnut, maple, or cherry Carroll harvests in the southern half of the state.

Despite regional differences in timber value, Carroll and Adams agree that processing the timber they harvest enhances their profits. A single source for timber harvest and processing also makes sense environmentally.

"For those serious about green construction, the local harvest of timber by a horse logger looks pretty good," Adams says. "Diesel isn't being burned to skid the logs or to haul the lumber on trucks from who knows how far away."

Adams recently milled locally harvested aspen to build a home for a customer near Hovland and a cabin for another near Two Harbors. Carroll is likewise finding local use for the timber he harvests in southern Minnesota, where he supplied dimensional lumber, hardwood trim, and flooring from locally harvested trees for a large home near Rochester.

"As far as I can tell, people like Tim Carroll are doing everything right," says John Pastor, ecology professor, University of Minnesota Duluth. "It's all the small sawmills in the state, the cabinetmakers, and furniture makers that are going to do the most for the environment in Minnesota."

According to Pastor, managing forests for saw timber helps limit atmospheric carbon in two ways. First, the saw-timber forests lock up carbon longer because harvest occurs about every 80 years compared with about 40 years for forests managed for pulp production. Second, durable goods made from wood store carbon for 30 to 50 years. In the case of heirloom furniture, the storage is nearly indefinite, Pastor notes. If a tree goes into paper production, carbon is released back into the atmosphere in a relatively short time. Because half the weight of a tree is carbon, the use of wood can have a significant impact on the climate.

"I think what we need to do is start thinking of houses, furniture, and long rotation forests as carbon storage devices," Pastor says. "It's almost a conservation ethic to buy wood furniture because you're storing carbon."

Opportunity for Efficiency

On a typical day, Carroll harvests and mills roughly one-fifth the timber a mechanical operation can. During winter his crews often swell to more than 20 people.

"Each horse costs me $4.50 a day, and that includes their depreciation. I don't need oil. I don't need anything once I'm set up," Carroll says.

Carroll uses tree crotches and tops for wooden bowls and table legs. He contracts with a network of Amish craftsmen who transform his milled and dried wood into trim, flooring, cabinets, and fine furniture. He heats his home, kiln, and shop almost entirely with wood waste. He sells shop sawdust to a factory, which compacts it into briquettes for industrial steam plants.

"It's all about using your materials in the most efficient manner," Carroll says.

"There is a reason I can go out and skid and mill 1,500 feet of lumber in a day and make a living."

Growing Business

Equine foresters have plenty of opportunities to work on forest land privately owned by some 150,000 Minnesotans, according to Don Arnosti, forestry program leader at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Arnosti expects that demand will grow as more privately owned forest land is divided into smaller parcels. "Parcels of land owned by Mom and Dad are now being split up among two or three heirs," he says. This trend, coupled with the continued division of large tracts of industrial landholdings, will increase the number of owners and decrease the average size of private forests, says Arnosti.

It doesn't make economic sense for a large mechanized logging operation to work on small tracts of private land. This will lead to more opportunities for equine foresters, especially where landowners have a need or desire to selectively harvest trees with minimal residual damage.

"I think we need more horse loggers," Arnosti says. "The niche isn't limited by market demand; it is more limited by the number of individuals who know and love horses and who are willing to do that hard work."

"I don't look at others in the horse-logging industry as competition," Carroll says. Rather, the biggest obstacle he shares with other equine foresters is lump-sum bidding for state and federal timber. Timber to be harvested on state and federal land is typically put up for auction, and the logger who is willing to pay top dollar for it is awarded the contract. Like any customized labor-intensive work, cutting trees with chainsaws and skidding logs with horses costs more, so horse loggers are rarely able to offer the highest bid.

The state is currently considering modifying the way contracts are awarded in places where the higher cost of a lighter-on-the-land practice would be offset by a long-term benefit, according to Lance Sorensen, DNR Forestry utilization and marketing specialist. On state land, Sorensen believes there is definitely a role for equine forestry, including selective harvests in old-growth forests where controlling disease or preventing fire is the goal.

"As time goes by, I think there will be more work to be done, especially in areas with high biodiversity of plant and animal populations -- critical habitat," Sorensen says.

Forestry Cooperative

In the northern forest pulpwood industry, massive production justifies the expense of harvesters, which commonly cost a half million dollars.

But even in the heart of Minnesota's pulp-producing region, Adams has found a way to carve out a living as a horse logger. In 2000 he helped found the Cook County Sustainable Forestry Cooperative -- a group of 23 individuals who own 1,500 acres of forest land scattered between the Gunflint Trail and Schroeder.

"Some are into it for the warm and fuzzy aspect of it," Adams admits. "Others are absentee owners who want someone looking after their land or to reduce fuels."

Other member goals include education or ski trails, but simply stated, Adams says they are people who want their woods left in as good or better condition when the work is done.

"If landowners are serious about it, they are willing to pay for it," Arnosti says. "It's about the intergenerational transfer. A landowner has to be willing to say, 'I'll take less today because I'm leaving more for my kids.'"

A Whisper of Irony

Apprentice Ben Harris makes his final cut of the day at Arcola. The towering oak cocks gently on its base in the opposite direction it was naturally leaning. By tapping on a pair of wedges placed behind his initial cut, he encourages the tree to fall in a line he has chosen to avoid hitting several young white pines.

The tree tips slowly before gaining frightening momentum, which is punctuated by its thunderous arrival on the forest floor. Then the woods fall silent, save for the plodding of hoofs, the jingle of log chains, and Carroll's words of encouragement to the horses.

As the long shadows of a winter afternoon dissolve into the uniform gray of dusk, the horses start to stumble.

"One more log and it's time to quit, OK, Ben?" Carroll says.

Back at the horse trailer, Carroll waters and feeds the horses. In the valley below, a beautifully restored, stately white house is evidence of the prosperity that was rough-hewn from the region's virgin forests during the 19th century.

Watching the water tumble over Arcola Creek's smooth stones before quietly joining the icebound St. Croix River, I think about the incredible toil of horses and men -- who once harvested this valley's trees with little thought of what might be lost. A whisper of irony flows from the realization that this same toil has been revived here as a tool to help preserve the forest that is growing back.

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