“Many people have been chasing consistent and viable forest thinning programs – what you are calling ‘certainty’ – for most of their professional lives. The timber industry, the Forest Service and our many forest stakeholders have been looking at overstocked forests and testing different treatments and thinning equipment for at least 25 years. We’ve done some things right and some things wrong. And then we’ve started over again in hopes of finding better results next time. I know this because I’ve participated in quite a few of these projects.

During the same time frame, we have watched mills disappear because they could not find enough timber to keep operating. Every time we lose a mill we end up hauling logs greater distances, which is more costly. The greater cost undermines the viability of thinning and restoration projects like this one. We don’t need 50,000-acre projects that take 10 years to complete. If we keep it practical, as we have here, we build a base of public acceptance and trust based on visible results that are pleasing to the eye as well as environmentally and economically beneficial.

We will not have the certainty we all seek until we earn back the public’s acceptance and trust, but once we have it, I’m hopeful that the public and its elected representatives will be willing to leave the forestry job to the professionals. Until that day comes, you will continue to hear me say the same thing that I’ve been saying for years: ‘Same promises, different year.’”

David Ehrmantrout
Ehrmantrout Thinning Service
Priest River, Idaho

David Ehrmantrout is a professional logger with more than 40 years of experience in the Inland Northwest and the Southeast. He is a recognized authority in the development and operation of in-woods chipping systems used by biomass and chip producers also in computer-aided cut-to-length mechanical harvesting systems that are the workhorses most frequently used in thinning and forest restoration work in the Intermountain region. He pioneered the use of light weight CTL systems that significantly reduce undesirable soil compaction.

Mr. Ehrmantrout and his three sons log mainly in northern Idaho and Northeast Washington. In this interview, he discusses the 230-acre Templemental Forest Stewardship Project they recently completed on Forest Service ground near Bonners Ferry, Idaho. We toured Templemental twice, and in so doing, learned that there are about one million national forest acres in northern Idaho and western Montana that need to be thinned soon, or they will begin to die.

These are overstocked stands 30 to 40 years old that were replanted after they were logged or burned. Minus thinning they will stop growing and become targets for insects and diseases that are precursors to wildfires. It occurred to us that, were Congress to authorize the work, a forest collaborative could easily devise plans for thinning such stands in 50,000 to 100,000-acre increments. Likewise, it could authorize much larger Forest Stewardship projects. As it is, Mr. Ehrmantrout and his sons have moved their equipment to another job, 75 miles away, when they could have more easily kept working at Templemental, where several thousand more acres need thinning.

Evergreen: Mr. Ehrmantrout, you were raised in Bonners Ferry, close to big forests. Is that why you chose logging as your profession?

Ehrmantrout: I suppose so. After I graduated from high school, I went to work at the saw mill at Moyie Springs, just north of Bonners Ferry. Things went from there.

Evergreen: How long have you been logging?

Ehrmantrout: In some form or another, all my adult life.

Evergreen: Someone told us your career tool you to the Southeast for a time. Why so far from home?

Ehrmantrout: I could not turn down the chance to work in true plantations. I was given an opportunity to go to Louisiana and help start an In-woods chipping operation. It led to another project the following year that involved starting up a cut-to-length logging system. They pretty much log year round in the South. No weather-related spring breakups like we have up here. That was an advantage, too.

Evergreen: We’ve twice toured your Templemental stewardship project near Bonners Ferry. You seem very passionate about the work you are doing there. Are you as passionate about all of your logging projects, or is there something special here that drives your enthusiasm?

Ehrmantrout: My passion and optimism are driven by my belief that we who work in this profession can and should be allowed to make a difference. My enthusiasm comes from enjoying what I do and the people I do it with. We know we are creating more resilient forests. On a more personal level, I enjoy teaching others how to do this work because there is a lot of it that needs doing.

Young men and women who want to follow in our footsteps can and should be able to do the kind of work we are doing for their entire working lives. Thinning is logging’s way of preparing for a better future for our forests and those who work and play in them.

Evergreen: We didn’t see a standing tree at Templemental much more than about 12 inches in diameter. Do you prefer working in smaller diameter forests and, if yes, why?

Ehrmantrout: Yes, I do. The equipment on that site is best suited for small diameter thinning work. Our maximum cut on the harvester is a tree 17 inches in diameter. Larger trees selected for harvest require that we periodically break out the chainsaw, but believe me, sitting in the harvester cab out of the weather, running the controls is a lot easier and safer! Being an eternal optimist, I’d like to do these kinds of thinning jobs year-round, but wet spring weather and fire season usually cut our work year down to nine or 10 months, if we’re lucky.

Evergreen: The Forest Service estimates there are about one million acres in northern Idaho and western Montana that look very similar to this site in terms of terrain, tree species and forest density. These are stands that were harvested and replanted in the 1970s and 80’s, so the trees are now about 30 to 40 years old. You told us that in a year you can’t do more than 500 acres like these acres. Our math tells us it will take you 2,000 years to complete one pass through one million acres. Do we have this scenario about right?

Ehrmantrout: I may question the acres based on the slope and terrain limitations of our ground-based mechanical harvesting equipment, but I’ve heard your age and forest classification numbers before.

Evergreen: If you knew that stewardship contracts like this one were going to be available all the time, would you buy more equipment and hire more people so you could do maybe 1,000 acres in a year rather than the 500 acres you are doing now?

Ehrmantrout: I certainly would. Caring for forests like these is a perpetual thing – or at least it should be. This is gardening on a grade scale. You either do it or the weeds take over and bad things happen.

Evergreen: What does your Templemental contact require you to do besides thinning?

Ehrmantrout: Our contract with the successful bidder on this project is a typical logging contract. We cut and deliver products designated by Forest Service contract to specified mills.

Evergreen: We read the contract specifications and note that your son who is operating your mechanical harvester gets to decide which trees he will harvest and which he will leave standing. What parameters did the Forest Service give him in terms of which trees to cut and which ones to leave?

Ehrmantrout: It’s called designation by prescription. Our parameters related to tree size and species. We are limited in what we can cut by a maximum designated tree size – we call it diameter breast high or DBH. There are also spacing requirements and preferred tree species to cut and leave. The goals are to create growing space for the trees we are leaving and to remove diseased trees that could infect other healthy trees.

Evergreen: What are the advantages and disadvantages of designation by prescription?

Ehrmantrout: A harvester operator looks over every tree he cuts, same as someone who marks cut or leave trees with a paint gun. Why do the same job twice? Any monetary savings we can accrue by not looking at the same tree twice is money we can apply to the treatment of additional acres that need thinning. So I don’t see a disadvantage in designation by prescription contracts.

Evergreen: We understand this stewardship contract is yielding both sawlogs and pulpwood logs. The pulp market is terrible at the moment, and no one seems to have figured out how to profit consistently from biomass, so are there enough logs that can be manufactured into lumber to pay the cost of the restoration work you are doing on the acres that don’t have many sawlogs?

Ehrmantrout: As this contract is set up and its proximity to the mills, which are only a few miles away, I would say yes, all the restoration costs are covered. But no two projects are alike. They all have different financial parameters, be it a thinning that is included in a standard timber sale contract, or a stewardship project like Templemental or a stand along project of some other type.

Evergreen: When we walked through the work you’ve already completed, we saw some very nice western white pine that looks to be no more than 30 years old, yet it’s already at least 24 inches in diameter. Are we correct in assuming that the thinning work you’re doing will speed growth in residual white pine?

Ehrmantrout: That’s true, not just of western white pine but any tree species. Give a tree a little more growing space and it will take it pretty quickly. That’s a big reason why these thinnings look so good a year or so after we finish our work. You can hardly tell that they’ve been logged. And if the job is done right, the thinning significantly reduces the risk of a crown fire. Crown fires kill every tree they reach.

Evergreen: We did a little back of the envelope math on our own and want you to check our numbers. If we assume this forest will start to fall apart at about age 70 – which is pretty typical of dry site, mixed conifer forests in the Intermountain region – it will take 29 two-man logging crews – like yours – working in perpetuity, to keep up the thinning work that is required on the one million plantation acres the Forest Service has identified in Region 1. Do we have that about right?

Ehrmantrout: You have it about right. Your scenario is what drives me to believe we will find ways to thin at certain age classes that both state and federal agencies along with industry and conservationists can support.

Evergreen: And don’t these stands also need a mid-life thinning – which is what you are doing here – to keep them from falling apart sooner than 70 years of age?

Ehrmantrout: So much more that is good happens when we reduce the stress level in young forests. We reduce fuel overloading and the risk of insect and disease infestations, which allows these forests to cull themselves. It’s that old sustainability resiliency thing. Ground water flow is also increased because there are fewer trees and, as I mentioned a moment ago, having fewer trees spaced further apart reduces the risk of deadly crown fires.

Evergreen: So young loggers, like your sons, might get the chance to come back here one more time before they retire in, say, 30 years. But after they retire, the job of keeping this forest healthy will fall to loggers and foresters born into future generations. True?

Ehrmantrout: Just answering “True” is too simplistic. It is the only way we can be assured of an ever evolving and healthy forest that benefits everyone, now and in the future.

Evergreen: So we come to the elephant standing in the room that no one wants to talk about. No young man or woman is going to plunk down two or three million dollars to buy the equipment required to do the thinning and stand tending work you are doing here unless Congress provides the necessary political certainty that is still missing. Do we have this about right?

Ehrmantrout: Many people have been chasing consistent and viable forest thinning programs, what you are calling ‘certainty,’ for most of their professional lives. The timber industry, the Forest Service and our many forest stakeholders have been looking at overstocked forests and testing different treatments and thinning equipment for at least 25 years. We’ve done some things right and some things wrong. And then we’ve started over again in hopes of finding better results next time. I know this because I’ve participated in quite a few of these projects.

During the same time frame, we have watched mills disappear because they could not find enough timber to keep operating. Every time we lose a mill we end up hauling logs greater distances, which is more costly. The greater cost undermines the viability of thinning and restoration projects like this one. We don’t need 50,000-acre projects that take 10 years to complete. If we keep it practical, as we have here, we build a base of public acceptance and trust based on visible results that are pleasing to the eye as well as environmentally and economically beneficial.

We will not have the certainty we all seek until we earn back the public’s acceptance and trust, but once we have it, I’m hopeful that the public and its elected representatives will be willing to leave the forestry job to the professionals. Until that day comes, you will continue to hear me say the same thing that I’ve been saying for years: ‘Same promises, different year.’