What I Learned From My Life As A Forester

A Bunch of Fellers: Life As A Forester

What I Learned From My Life As A Forester

By F. Diane Pickett

If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? You’re darn right it does if it is my bloody tree ‘cause I ain’t leaving the logging camp until the crew cranks up the last battered truck and goes home.

What a wonderful sound the forest makes on its own. The rustle of the trees in the wind, the soft sigh of a pine needle as it floats politely to the earth and the excited chatter of the squirrels celebrating the fact they drove out yet another group of tree devils called harvesters.

The timber business is not for the feint of heart and definitely not for many women. I backed into it reluctantly and set off on a learning curve that had me careening around on two wheels at high speed. I was determined to stay ahead of the pack and that took some real maneuvering.

Before my father died and left me with a huge tree farm, I was a happy camper in the world of medicine with a fascinating career as an administrator of a large group of doctors, almost all of whom were male. Having grown up in an exclusively male household, with no woman in sight, managing men was a natural for me and it came in very handy as I began to explore the world of forestry. The timber business is an enclave reserved for men only and they are among the toughest, roughest, most cunning group I have ever known. Their goal is to figure out how to steal your trees and make you think they have done you a favor by hauling them away and getting them off your property.

I remember after Pick died, it occurred to me that he had left me no cheat sheet on how to run a timber business, so I decided I better get a little education on the subject. My first idea was to join the Forestry Association. Having done association management for a number of years, it seemed only logical. I failed to realize it was a boys club for grown up men. My first adventure was to take myself off to a national conference. It was a spectacular time to be in Michigan at the peak of the fall color. So, arriving in a golden shower of leaves and a somewhat anxious state of mind, I set off from my hotel room in an attempt to find the usual “welcome reception.” That is simply a tired expression for “let’s drink up while it’s free.” The hotel was large with poor signage, so I did the logical thing and followed my nose. I smelled sausage biscuits and knew my group was calling me home. After all, this was a bunch of Southern foresters and pork ran in their veins, as well as on their hair.

I quickly realized about the only education I was going to get was an attempted lesson on how and what to drink. However, I was prepared! Having hung out with men all my life, I was already in training for the big game and knew when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. I easily survived and managed to collect more than a few business cards for future reference. I had an absolute forest of consultants willing and anxious to give me advice on a wide variety of subjects, some of them even related to timber. However, I was a novice about cutting down trees, but not about cutting down men. The first time I heard the words “feller buncher,” I thought it was a football huddle, but it turned out to be a piece of machinery to cut down and bunch trees into a pile.

Yes, I knew that I had to get this timber thing under my belt and was extremely fortunate to find a college educated forester in my own area who was totally above board and highly skilled. He walked me through the myriad processes of selling timber, but it still took me years to get a real grip on the subject. Selling timber is like playing poker—you have to keep a straight face. You can’t let a logger see your weak points or he will cut you down to a stump!

Pick had taught me something about poker because he was also involved in real estate development and those transactions were a little like a baseball umpire yelling “safe.” You were always running for first base and sliding into home plate was a sweet victory!

A timber sale is not an easy process and there are a million ways to get cheated. The first thing I learned was that I had to have it cruised. No, I’m not talking about Tom, but an evaluation by an experienced consultant to determine the various species of the woodlands, as well as the volume and current market value for each product. If you skip that step, you may as well just go on to the bar and spend all your money right then because there won’t be enough from that timber sale later to even buy a beer.

Once you get it cruised, then the fun really starts and you get to do a lot of dithering about with some other folks for what is called a preharvest plan. This is the time when you have to think and plan for maintaining the water quality of streams, the impact of skidding on the land, identifying wetlands, steep grades, planning road access and how to avoid tree and resulting insect damage, where you will cross creeks and the culverts required to bridge them.

Once the cruise and pre-harvest planning is done, put on your big girl pants and get ready for the fight of your life—the sale! There are several ways to do a timber sale and there is no one set rule. It all depends on what kind of trees, how many, and how big a hurry you are in. There are two basic kinds of sales—negotiated versus sealed bids. Negotiated sales are usually done when there is high value product such as hardwoods and other specialty wood. Sealed bid sales often return the highest value and are confidential lump sum written offers, whereas negotiated sales are a price per ton per species and product class (pine, pulp, hardwood, poles, saw timber, etc.).

Before you ask for bids you have to decide what kind of harvest it is to be-marked; seed cut or thinning or lump sum and what kind of scale is going to be used and how long the logger will have to cut and remove the trees. Most contracts are for l2 to 24 months to allow for weather and other access issues. A lump sum sale is not a function of volume and the scale is what is used to determine the amount of boards that will be utilized from the diameter of the log. There are three types of scales—Scribner, Doyle and International l/4. Each produces a different measurement and will directly affect the diameter of your paycheck. It is sort of like weighing a chicken that the butcher told you is a turkey. Size does matter.

Be sure you don’t make the mistake of selling your timber by the log load unless you plan to be up a tree checking each load as it leaves the camp.

As for me, I don’t need to go to the beauty parlor anymore as I have already pulled out all my hair during these negotiations.

Southern writer F. Diane Pickett is the author of the National Indie Excellence Award-winning book, Never Isn’t Long Enough.

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