The kind of thinning work you are doing for the Stoltze and O’Neil families looks very similar to the forest restoration work the Forest Service says it wants to do. Would you agree?

From what I’ve seen, yes. It’s tedious work, even for a good machine operator, but the visual result is very pleasing, and it definitely improves the quality of the forest. We protect a lot of habitat for the animals. Makes you feel good knowing you are making a real and measurable contribution to forest stewardship and conservation.”

Ken Swanstrom
Swanstrom Logging Company
Kalispell, Montana

Ken Swanstrom has been logging in his native northwest Montana for 40 years. He operates one “side,” a side being a set of machines that works in one area at a time. Two and three side operations working in different locales are rare today because it is difficult to justify the equipment cost, which can run from $500,000 to $1 million per machine. Mr. Swanstrom’s single side operation has six machines and four operators. In this interview, he answers questions about his the nature of his work, which veers very close to the kind of forest restoration work Montana’s forest collaboratives envision.

Evergreen: Mr. Swanstrom, you’ve been at this logging game for a long time. What’s the secret of your success in these uncertain times?

Swanstrom: I keep it simple, and I work with some of the best people on the planet. I’ve also been fortunate enough to work as a contractor for the same wonderful family since 1994. Having a superb crew and being able to work steady are the keys to our success.

Evergreen: And who might that family be that keeps you working steadily?

Swanstrom: I contract mainly for the F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company, Montana’s oldest continuously operating lumber company. Over 100 years. I also do some work for Montana Forest Products, which is owned by the O’Neil’s, another old time Flathead Valley lumber family. At one time, the O’Neil family owned two sawmills in the valley.

Evergreen: What is the nature of your work?

Swanstrom: When I went to work for Stoltze, they talked constantly about the five “D’s.” Those were the dead, down, dying, diseased on defective trees on their land. My job was to remove them, and to keep their stands thinned so the residual trees grew well.  

Evergreen: Big job?

Swanstrom: Stoltze has 38,000 acres and Montana Forest Products has 7,000. So 45,000 acres in total. A big job. Lately, it seems like all I do is chase bugs.

Evergreen: What do you mean when you say you “chase bugs”?

Swanstrom: Our northwest Montana climate is changing. It’s warmer and drier than I’ve ever seen it. So we have a lot of mortality in our shade tolerant tree species, mainly Douglas-fir, alpine fir, grand fir and Engelmann spruce. My job is to remove the trees with bugs or any of the 5D’s. The goal is constant timber stand improvement.

Evergreen: Keeps you busy?

Swanstrom: Very busy. We can only treat between one and two acres a day, depending on slope and terrain. Most days, we make our two acres, but the work can be pretty tedious at times.

Evergreen: When you say “treat” we presume you mean you are removing the diseased trees.

Swanstrom: That’s correct. We use mechanical harvesting machines. Few loggers pack chainsaws anymore. Putting men in the cabs of machines is more efficient and a whole lot safer.

Evergreen: We’ve seen many mechanical harvesting systems. They’re almost surgical in what they can do, but they certainly aren’t cheap.

Swanstrom. A new machine with a processing head costs close to a half million dollars. My new John Deere with its Waratah processing head was real close to that number.

Evergreen: And the processing head does what?

Swanstrom: Ours de-limbs the tree, cuts it into the right log lengths, sorts by diameter and measures its own production.

Evergreen: Does a forester mark the trees you are to cut or leave behind?

Swanstrom: No, we make the decision ourselves based on the landowner’s objectives. The method is called “operator select,” and it means that we pick the trees to remove. Stoltze has always felt that their money was better spent teaching loggers how to do it than sending foresters into the woods with paint guns. I agree. You can see the stand better from the cab of a machine if you first remove the cull trees so that you have a better view of the premium trees you want to leave. The objective with both Stoltze and the O’Neil family is to conserve by leaving the best trees as a seed source and removing the trees that are diseased or have lived past their prime.

Evergreen:  A lot of responsibility on your shoulders.

Swanstrom: I prefer this method because it really connects you to the forest. You aren’t simply whacking down trees with blue paint marks on them. But it takes a long time to learn how to do this and do it well.

Evergreen: Other than the 5D’s, did Stoltze give you any specific instructions?

Swanstrom: The only instruction I got when Stoltze took me on almost 22 years ago was to treat their land as if it was my own. That’s what we do.

Evergreen: So your entire logging universe spans just 45,000 acres.

Swanstrom: Pretty much, though we do log the sales Stoltze buys from the Forest Service or the Montana Department of Natural Resources. I also scare up private sales when I can.

Evergreen: What do you know about Governor Bullock’s Montana Forests in Focus initiative?

Swanstrom: We haven’t worked on any of Governor Bullock’s Priority Landscape projects, but if Stoltze buys one – and I hope they do – we will be pleased to do it. I like our governor. He’s stepped up to say that creating family-wage jobs for woods and mill workers is important for our state’s economy.

Evergreen: You say you can treat a about two acres a day, That’s about 10 acres per week, 40 acres per month and maybe 480-500 acres per year. Is that about right?

Swanstrom: It depends on terrain. Less slope is better because you can cover more ground faster. In a great year, we might do 500 acres.

Evergreen: We have a Forest Service estimate indicating that there are about one million roaded acres in the Northern Region that have been logged before and could be thinned mechanically to promote growth and forest health.

Swanstrom: I haven’t done a Forest Service sale by myself since sometime in the 1980s. But if I’m following you, my back of the envelope estimate says it would take about 2,500 contractors my size to thin all those acres in one year. But if you spread the work over 100 years, which is about how long it takes to grow a forest here, you could do it with 25-30 loggers. That might make some sense.

Evergreen: The kind of thinning work you are doing for the Stoltze and O’Neil families looks very similar to the forest restoration work the Forest Service says it wants to do. Would you agree?

Swanstrom: From what I’ve seen, yes. It’s tedious work, even for a good machine operator, but the visual result is very pleasing, and it definitely improves the quality of the forest. We protect a lot of habitat for the animals. Makes you feel good knowing you are making a real and measurable contribution to forest stewardship and conservation.

Evergreen: We know you’re involved in many different logging associations. What’s the biggest challenge facing loggers today?

Swanstrom: Recruiting young men and women who want to make a career of logging. We have an aging work force. Lots and lots of experience, but none of us is getting any younger. You can’t get into this business for much less than a million dollars. Banks don’t loan that kind of money to young people, so those that take the plunge usually work first for an experienced operator.

Evergreen: And not many want to do that?

Swanstrom: Not many. I know many loggers my age who don’t want their kids following them into the business. It’s too uncertain and, maybe even more important, the return on investment is too small. There are other places where you can make a good living with big machines.

Evergreen: But you’re still here.

Swanstrom: I’m fortunate to be able to work for great families that want to do the right thing in the woods: forest first and money second. So I get up every day with a smile on my face, and I finish most days with a real sense of accomplishment. Life is good.