W.Va. Timber: Mechanization Driving Change in Logging Practices

Sep 21, 2017

Most of the state’s trees are harvested by small-scale logging operations, using chainsaws, but a growing number of logging companies use large, mechanized logging machines that can do much more, faster.

Jean Snedegar joined veteran logger Jerry Huffman on Knobley Mountain, in Grant County.

“We’re about 5 or 6 miles from Maysville, about 15 miles from Petersburg,” Huffman said.

Veteran logger Jerry Huffman
Credit Jean Snedegar

Huffman owns three businesses related to logging – based just outside Petersburg – which employ more than 40 people. He’s been in the business more than 60 years.

“This timber was probably cut over about 25 years ago. This is not a clear-cut – it’s a select cut,” he said in a timber stand about 6 miles outside Maysville. “The timber was marked by a professional forester. You can see there are a lot of trees left. Probably in 20 or 25 years they can cut it again.”

Huffman sends out four or five teams of loggers every work day – some conventional crews using chainsaws and others using huge logging machines.

A Tigercat machine.
Credit Jean Snedegar

The Tigercat

“This machine cost about $500,000,” Huffman said, pointing to a yellow and black machine with a combination claw and saw on an articulated arm.

He said that while he has to cut a lot of timber for the machine to pay for itself, there is another consideration.

“It’s the safety factor with these machines.”

The stand is on the eastern side of the Allegheny Front and it’s a lot drier over there than the other side. Huffman said that means that the trees are different as well.

“In this area, the timber grows more slowly than West of the Alleghenies, where they get more rainfall. Most of what we’re cutting here is oak – chestnut oak and red oak. Whenever you get over the Alleghenies you get more cherry, hard maple and soft maple. And the further west you go you get into more poplar. Out towards Clarksburg and Fairmont area there’s more poplar.”

Jerry Huffman is a third-generation logger. His son – and two grandsons – are also in the business with him. The machine operators are highly skilled.

Making the Cut

The big machine approached a marked tree. It picked up the tree, and it guided it as it fell.

Using a giant arm, the machine operator cut the individual branches off, topped the tree, picked it up as if it were a toothpick, swung it around and then cut it into lengths suitable for transport.

It all happens so fast you can easily miss it. Meanwhile, two skidders went back and forth, up and down the mountain, dragging the cut logs to the log landing – a level area at the bottom of the mountain.

One Tigercat machine can cut enough trees to fill four log trucks a day.

Tigercat operator Charlie Bow said he spends about 7-7.5 hours a day in the air-conditioned cab.

“I have to say, this seat is very comfortable.”

Charlie Bow steps out of a Tigercat.
Credit Jean Snedegar

Rolling with the Terrain

Huffman said the terrain determines whether he can use a Tigercat or a conventional crew.

“If it’s too steep, then they can’t cut with the mechanized equipment,” he said. “Right now, I’m about 90 percent select cutting. Clear-cutting is a good tool to use in places it can be used. We do some clearings. In fact we’re doing a clearing job for a farmer who wants more pasture. A lot of farmers in our area have to haul their cattle somewhere for pasture, and if they’ve got an area they can clear and keep them close to their farm, that’s what they like to do.”

In his more than 60 years of logging, Huffman said he has seen dramatic changes in how things are done.

“My early days of my logging I worked with my dad, and we started out with horses. I was not very old then – just a teenager, 12 or 13 years old – worked with him up through the woods. And then we went to a small dozer where we skidded with them, and then we’d dig out a hole and push the logs on the truck – we had skids and stuff – which made it a little easier than rolling them all by hand. And then probably in the mid-60s is when the skidders first came into this country. And we were able to get one back then,” he said. “As equipment got better, we got log loaders and finally got to these cutting machines. I’ve lived in a time – and anyone from my generation -- when we’ve seen more change in this business than it was way before that – because everything stayed about the same up until then.”

Huffman said he would advise youngsters growing up in West Virginia today to go into the timber, logging or wood products business.

“because I don’t think there are going to be too many people who do it. And if you want to work, you can make it at it.”

Correction: This story has been changed to accurately reflect the Tigercat brand name.

 This series is made possible by support from the Myles Family Foundation.