LOGGING ON…WITH TECHNOLOGY

“Loggers are optimists. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be loggers. We like our future prospects and hope to pass a good business along to our kids.”

Jerry Mason, Mason’s Logging, Rathdrum, Idaho

Right off, Pat Mason wants you to know that he is older, smarter and better looking than his brothers. His younger brother, Ron, says it’s true that Pat is the oldest, “but none of that other stuff [actually he used a different word] is true.”

The Mason brothers: Pat, Ron, Jim and Jerry, are the heart and soul of Mason’s Logging, a Rathdrum, Idaho logging company started by their 77-year-old father – another Ron – in 1979. But now it is the brothers’ show, and it is as well choreographed as any logging operation you could hope to find working in Idaho, or anywhere else for that matter.

The brothers clearly enjoy poking fun at one other, but this foursome is all business when it comes to the tough and inherently dangerous work that occupies them from sunup to sundown six days a week. Safety is everything. There is no margin for error.

Logging is a vastly different business than it was when the elder Mason entered the profession in 1979. Back then, loggers packed chain saws, saw gas, tools and oil, axes, aluminum wedges and small hydraulic jacks used to tip falling trees the right direction.

Today, Mason’s sons ride in the cabs of machines armed with massive hydraulic cylinders, seated in air-ride seats outfitted with joy sticks and buttons that control the machine’s every movement. Technology does the heavy lifting, just like it does in every office around the world.

Jerry, the youngest brother, runs the office, keeps the books, rustles jobs and communicates daily with mills that buy Mason logs. He studied at North Idaho College.

“That means he never gets his hands dirty,” older brother Pat teases.

Maybe not, but from his laptop computer, Jerry can check anytime to make sure Pat, Jim and Ron are working. “Using GPS, I can monitor board foot production by tree species, log quality, machine fuel consumption, you name it and I can probably get it in one or two key strokes.”

At the speed of light, and using satellite links, Mason can also share his information with the sales staffs at mills that process Mason logs. Most of those logs come from timberlands owned by the Inland Empire Paper Company. IEPC is owned by the Cowles family, which also owns the Spokesman Review and a string of television stations. The elder Ron Mason started logging for IEPC some 30 years ago.

“As we grew up, we all became Dad’s slave labor,” Jerry says with a smile. “We bumped knots on log landings, set chokers and did whatever else Dad needed doing. There wasn’t much doubt about which direction our lives were headed. We are a very close knit family.”

The Mason brothers also sell private logs to the Idaho Forest Group, by far Idaho’s largest wood processor, with mills at Chilco, Laclede, Moyie Springs, Lewiston and Grangeville. IFG buys many of Inland’s sawlogs. In return, Inland buys residual wood chips from IFG for its paper mill on Argonne Road in the Spokane Valley. The 500-ton-a-day mill has operated continuously since 1911 and services 120 customers in the western United States.

“We are small cogs in some pretty big wheels,” Mason says of the work he and his brothers do.

That might be given the enormity of the infrastructure complex that processes fiber harvested from public and private forestlands in northern Idaho and eastern Washington. But the capital investment the Mason brothers have made isn’t for the faint-of-heart.

“It will cost us between $1.5 and $2 million to replace our current equipment configuration Mason says of the company’s equipment outlay, which includes a log processor, two grapple skidders, a track-mounted loader and a massive bulldozer. “And we’re looking to buy another processor, so that will set us back close to a half-million dollars.”

The business end of the current log processor is its $180,000 computer controlled head, a fearsome device as tall as most men that grasps logs, pulls them through a set of de-limbing rollers, then cuts them into precise log lengths before gently stacking them in neat piles. Ron Mason can process a log in about 10 seconds.

Brother Jim runs the grapple skidder that fetches felled timber and delivers it to Ron’s processor, He reminds me that if you push a wrong button the ensuing mechanical calamity can cost you a hundred grand in repair bills. It is a mistake he has never made. Likewise Brother Pat, who sorts Ron’s logs by species, size and length, then loads them on log trucks.

Mason 1aMason’s hauling is done by Double D Services, owned by David Devine, a veteran driver from Spirit Lake, Idaho. “We like Dave,” Jerry Mason says. “With him, showing up 10 minutes early on a log landing is the same thing as being late. He’s an excellent driver and very dependable. In this business, we depend on mutual skills and safety.”

The mere fact that the Mason brothers would even consider plunking down another half-million dollars for a new processor speaks to their optimism.

“Loggers are optimists,” Mason says. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be loggers. We like our future prospects and hope to pass a good business along to our kids.”

There are indeed reasons to be optimistic about the future of Idaho’s timber industry. The Idaho Panhandle Forest Collaborative is making steady progress in a series of projects designed to reduce tree density in overstocked stands on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. They’ll get a boost from a recently signed Good Neighbor Agreement inked by the Forest Service and the Idaho Department of Lands. The agreement will allow state foresters to design and oversee projects the Forest Service could not otherwise complete because of its own staffing limits.

“We’ve never logged on Forest Service ground,” Jerry Mason says. “But people seem to be coming together around the idea of getting work done in timber stands that hold too many trees to grow the way they should. We certainly have the right kind of equipment, and we talk about expanding, but we want to be sure we can offer new loggers a career, not just temporary work. That said, we take it as a hopeful sign that wood use is increasing globally, as it should. It is the only renewable structural building material on earth. ”

Increasingly, loggers are college educated. Many hold advanced degrees in business or some aspect of forestry. Indeed, the next Mason generation is bringing added brainpower to the company. Jim’s two sons are enrolled in a diesel mechanics program at North Idaho College and a daughter studying medical nutrition at NIC, plus two more at home. Ron has two sons at the University of Idaho. One just graduated in mathematics and the other is an engineering student. Jerry’s two – ages 11 and 14 – are still at home. He coaches their baseball team.

“None of us has much time for the civic stuff,” Jerry says of his commitment to coaching his son’s team. “We wish we did, but logging is a daylight to dark business. Still, its good honest work, and my brothers and I find it very satisfying.”

Computers were in their infancy and occupied entire floors in office buildings when the elder Mason got started in 1979. “Now they are in every piece of equipment we own,” Mason says.  “Good mechanical and technical skills begin with knowing how to run a computer and use the most up to date technology. Dad started out with a pickup and a saw. You can’t do that anymore, not in logging or any other similar business you care to name. We’ve gone high tech and there is no turning back.”

  • Jim Petersen, the Evergreen Foundation