Taking the “Worst First,” Leaving the Best to Grow


The famously beautiful hills of Floyd County, Virginia, attracted hippies in the 1960s and ‘70s, New Agers in the 1980s and ‘90s, and most recently, Y2K wannabe refugees from Wall Street. But it wasn’t the Blue Ridge vista that was framed in the picture window of Jason Rutledge’s living room. It was the barn.

This made sense, because the barn and the horses in it are the center of Jason’s life. As a horse logger, Jason uses animal power to reduce the disturbance of logging as low as you can go and still take trees out. Jason is, in many ways, a deeply romantic man, but not when it comes to his business.

“Logging with draft animals isn’t a matter of romantic nostalgia,” he said. “It’s simply the best solution to many current forest problems.”

Agreement is widespread and growing.Facilitated by the Internet, an old and nearly lost tradition is rising, so to speak, from the slashes. A search for “horse logging” can turn up not only home pages for horse loggers from Nova Scotia to Texas to Oregon, but also help-wanted ads from landowners seeking horse loggers across the same continental span.

Jason is a national leader in this revival. Clean-cut and graying at the temples, with a hank of hair falling over his forehead to his glasses, he looks like a professor.
There is a determined thrust to his jaw. He is given to staccato outbursts of passionate speech in a voice graveled by cigarettes.

Don’t call me a logger,” he said. “Conventional loggers are mere tools of industrial forest interests. To call me a logger diminishes the highly skilled work I do. I’m a biological woodsman.” By redefining the terms as well as the practices of logging, Jason sought to remake the image of a much maligned occupation.

Picturesque horses contribute mightily to that new image. The Suffolk Punch breed that Jason preferred had been developed in medieval times for farm work. Nearly two dozen silky chestnut horses with big brown eyes and thick black tails inhabited the barn, which was exceptionally beautiful. Sited on a hilltop, upslope from the modest, earth-bermed house Jason had built to accompany it, the barn caught the first light in the morning.

It was two stories, architecturally sophisticated but based on old designs, with a breezeway through the middle and concrete floors, equipment bays, and a tack room. Whole shelves were lined with ribbons and trophies that Jason had won in draft horse competitions. On the outside, the hemlock he used for siding had weathered into a soft gray. It took Jason five years to build and was more finished than his house, which as yet had only a basement floor with kitchen, bath, and several bedrooms.

Jason had milled his own house beams and heated the place entirely with a wood stove that stood against a brick wall. A garlic braid hung from a beam, and quarts of home-canned tomatoes sat in an open cabinet. The walls were lined with photos of children and horses, often together. Outside, an electric wire marked off lush pasture two feet from the picture window. Several sets of equine eyes stared in as Jason prepared for a day of logging. As he often did, he started the day with Vitamin I – that is to say, ibuprofen.

“I hurt all over,” he groaned as he laced up his boots.

Biological woodsmanship is a physically taxing line of work, not to mention one of the most dangerous jobs around, and Jason had been doing it for more decades than he cared to enumerate. He was born in central Virginia and raised by his grandfather, who share-cropped tobacco with horses. Jason joined the service after high school and served in Vietnam.

Afterward, he traveled around for a year or two on a motorcycle. Along the way, he was captivated by the fertile rolling 80 acres. The price was low because much of it had just been clear-cut. He raised a family, eventually, of four children. He was looking for self-sufficiency, independence, and a job outdoors.

“But I saw that agriculture was not the way to go,” he said. “Food is a giveaway. The system destroys farmers to keep food cheap. I had to find a way to live in the country without being destroyed. Turning to the forest was the obvious thing to do. This is a forested land. And I knew from experience what horses could offer. I’ve had a life-long connection with horses. The human culture of draft animals is not something to be lightly discarded.”

The horses were loaded into a trailer behind a pickup driven by Jason’s son, Jagger. Jason had chosen the name because it was a medieval term for the keeper of the horses. Jagger had just turned 20 and was taking a break from college to work for his father. A champion wrestler, he was strong and lithe.

I rode with Jason high up in the seat of his log truck. The license plates read “HOSS LOG.” It was noisy in the cab, and the break at a gas station was welcome. Jason seemed apologetic about having to get gas; he hated to buy it because it made him dependent on a far distant, politically manipulated product, and because his truck got only six miles to the gallon. Horses could haul the logs out of the woods, but getting them to a mill was a job for a truck. Jason had made a mitigating rule for himself: he would stay within a harvesting radius of 10 miles from home. Today’s job was nine on the nose.

Jason hitched his team, the ponderous but placid Skidder and Wedge, to a one-seat carriage, which he rode up a slope into a woodlot that an absentee owner had hired him to log. Four of us followed him on five pairs of feet. Jagger and I walked together, talking about the forest. Behind us, Todd Buchanan led his horse, Dan.

Todd had arrived a month earlier as Jason’s apprentice. He was several years older than Jagger and didn’t talk much. I quickly learned to listen when he did, and not only because of his classic Appalachian dialect. Todd was from Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, the highest mountain in the East. He grew up on a farm that his family had owned for 150 years. He was very tall and skinny, with a trim beard and a clean-shaven head, which was usually hidden under a cowboy hat. Beneath the hat brim, his eyes shone a clear and piercing blue. Tattoos chased his arms up into his rolled-up sleeves. Todd lived in the tack room of the barn and swapped horse maintenance for instruction.

“I bear witness to Jason’s mentoring,” he said. “Not just of me, but several others I know personally.”

Todd was one of many students that Jason had taught over the years in an earn-as-you-learn program. It wasn’t easy to become a horse logger. Most of the 2,000-10,000 estimated horse loggers in the United States had learned from their fathers or grandfathers and were themselves nearing retirement age. Videos and manuals are available, but it’s not the kind of job you learn from books.

Jason hoped eventually to offer a formal apprenticeship as part of the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation he had recently founded. With support from a board of directors and a membership base, he hoped to give his message more carrying power. His message was restoration forestry. “The forest is in a declining condition,” he said. “Why should we want to sustain a forest that’s been degraded by high grading?”

High grading has always been, and remains, one of the most popular harvesting methods. Only the valuable trees – that is, those most likely to be graded as high value by the mill — are removed each time the woods are cut. Diameter-limit cutting, which takes only trees larger than a certain number of inches in diameter, is a new term for essentially the same technique as high grading.

High grading means loggers don’t waste their time on low-value timber, and it leaves the appearance of a functioning forest. But what high grading and diameter limit cutting actually leave behind are the least valuable species to serve as seed sources, diseased trees that can spread infection, and poorly formed or damaged specimens that crowd out better trees. Repeated over a century and more, high grading has left low-quality timberlands across Appalachia and much of the East.

“The first step to sustainable forestry,” Jason said, “is restoration forestry. Extraction is inevitable, and necessary for society, but our mission must be to maintain the forest not only intact but in improving health.”

Through a self-directed program of reading from the most progressive forestry literature, and through his own experiences over 30 years, he developed a set of operating rules to correct the legacy of high grading. With his usual sense of word play he called it “worst first,” a term later picked up by other groups in the sustainable forestry movement. He also calls it “low grading.”

By any name, it’s a form of thinning. It harvests the lowest rather than the highest value trees, in cycles of 10 to 30 years. Jason composed a “perpetual management” contract with landowners that gives him first rights to log the same woodlot in the next cycle. That way, he stood a chance of realizing the benefits of his earlier delayed gratification; or if not him, his family business.

“What you leave in the woods is more important than what you take,” he said, “because what you leave determines the future of that forest. I know I’ll never live to see the results of what I do, but I’ll be leaving a true living legacy to landowners of the future. Because by improving the forest, low grading is a wealth-creating management approach.”

An example of just how quickly that wealth could grow lay on Jason’s coffee table: a cross section of a poplar tree he had cut in his own woodlot seven years after he had thinned around it. The annual growth ring that represented the year of thinning was marked. In the seven years afterward, the tree’s growth rate increased by 300 percent. This was not unusual; many studies document the dramatic power of thinning.

The morning silence was broken by chain saws as Jagger and Todd began cutting. I was glad for the warmth of my hard hat, because the day was cold even though it was spring, one of those days when you listen for birdsong but hear instead the dying snarl of winter in the wind. Still, on my list of Beautiful Woodlots I Have Known, this one ranked high. Jason had found rock piles and figured it was all cleared pasture a century ago, but the past was impossible to conjure in that luxuriantly leafy forest.

There were many features of old growth. Layers of vegetation formed a green haze from the ground to the tree canopy. Trees were of all sizes, from saplings to boles three feet in diameter. Lots of dead and downed wood littered the ground. The horses picked delicately through it with feet the size of buckets. Jason dismounted and flipped the reins around a bush, leaving his team to slobber quietly over it as he pointed out harvesting decisions he had made.

We passed a chicken-of-the-woods mushroom with salmon-colored flesh, part of which Jason had consumed last night for supper. Nearby was a huge scarlet oak stump.

“I cut this one because scarlet oak is a short-lived tree, and once it’s mature it’s likely to blow down,” he said. “But I found this one was still growing good growth rings, so I’ll leave other scarlet oaks on this same contour. Those big, nice, dominant red and black oaks, they’re nicely spaced, so I left them…My approach imitates nature by preying on the old, diseased, or weaker victims. Just as the wild predators do, so should the harvesters of trees. This insures the survival and reproduction of the strongest specimens.”

Jason selected his victims according to “nature’s own tree-marking paint,” or list of warning symptoms. He was working on assigning numerical values to each indicator to establish a “readiness for harvest” scale, but in general, a tree had to show at least three of the following signs: frost cracks, crown damage, butt swelling, festering wounds, or certain species of fungi and other diseases or insect pests, especially exotic pests such as gypsy moth and hemlock woolly adelgid. “There’s 50 million board feet of hemlock in a 10-mile radius about to die due to the adelgid,” Jason said.

Along with acid rain, certain pests and diseases introduced from other continents are a looming threat to forest health, because they can overwhelm an ecosystem that has never evolved any means to check their population growth. Chestnut blight is the classic example. Jason therefore cut alien invader species like the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), even through there was no market for them.

Jason also cut some trees based on their species alone. “Some low-value species have become unnaturally dominant due to human intervention,” he said. “Examples are red maple, hickory, black gum, scarlet oak, post oak, black oak, black birch, and beech. But I take only 30 percent of the canopy. I leave a perpetual partial climax. And I leave obvious wildlife features, like standing dead trees. Plenty of diverse habitat remains.

“At the same time, I also admit some sunlight to the forest floor for natural regeneration by seedlings, without prompting epicormic branching.” Epicormic refers to buds stimulated by sun on a tree trunk to produce branches that disfigure the potential lumber.

Plenty of foresters disagreed with Jason’s logic. In fact, the whole concept of such highly selective harvesting is rejected by much of the forestry establishment. Many of the more valuable timber species — yellow poplar, black cherry, ash, and many types of oaks — are generally intolerant of shade and require direct sunlight for seeds to sprout and thrive.The regeneration of oaks in particular — whose acorns have become an essential source of wildlife food since the demise of the chestnut — has been much debated. Clearcutting has been justified vociferously as the only way to regenerate oaks.

Yet oaks were prominent in the eastern woods long before European settlers had a chance to clearcut them. The abundance of oaks, and the even greater abundance of chestnut trees, may have been due in part to fires set by Native Americans. The extent to which Indians used fire for land management has been a topic of controversy for many years. Oaks and chestnuts have thick bark and deep roots that resist fires that kill off more vulnerable species. For the most part, fires of the pre-European settlement era, whether set by lightning or by Indians, were likely to have been burns of low to medium intensity. Such fires, as well as other disturbances like wind throw and insect infestations, would have resulted in relatively small openings along the scale of those that Jason created.

Jason was used to criticism. He saw himself as a burr under the saddle of the system, an iconoclast who was not always welcomed even by environmentalists, with whom he competed for grants. “This is a time,” he said, “when wrong looks right because there’s so much of it.”

Jason believed oaks would also survive under his system. “One of the biggest reasons foresters today have trouble regenerating oaks is because clear-cuts congregate deer, who love to eat oak sprouts. My cuts don’t stimulate enough browse to attract deer.”

If deer don’t kill the sprouts that grow from stumps, the eventual result is multiple-stemmed trees that have good root systems but are often weak in other respects. Jason left only the straightest, best stem. It was a real test of felling ability to avoid damaging that residual trunk. “Directional felling using the hinge and latch method takes real expertise,” Jason said. “The point is to cut a tree first with the safety of the feller in mind, and second with minimal damage to other trees.”

There was a loud crack, and a tree thudded behind us. “Damn that wind,” Jason said. The whole time we’d been talking he’d kept an ear cocked to the pitches and whines of the chain saws, interrupting himself now and again to check on things. “It’s getting too windy,” he called out now to Jagger and Todd. “Time to quit cutting.”

Jagger packed up the saws, and Jason and Todd began speaking in low voices to their horses. Todd had been whispering to Dan off and on all morning, their heads tilting together, whenever he stopped to refill his saw. Now he and Jason maneuvered their horses into position to pull the downed logs. Todd called Dan the Miracle Horse, because he had learned voice commands in a matter of hours. “He wants to do what you want him to,” Todd said.

Jason murmured a command and his team leaned into the weight of three poplar logs. Following them, I measured the ruts they left: exactly one and a half inches deep. Although the crew had been working here for weeks, few trees showed any scuffs from the passage of horses and logs. Studies have found that mechanized skidders, which are much heavier and less maneuverable than horses, require wider trails, leave deeper ruts, compact the surrounding soil significantly more, and wound many more residual trees than horse loggers. Plus they’re noisy, smoky, and reek of diesel fuel instead of hay-filled barns.

“Don’t be fooled, though,” Jason cautioned. “Horse logging can be environmentally damaging, too, depending on the logger. Horse loggers can high grade as easily as anyone. And not all of them use the arch.” This was not an arch at all, but a flat metal bar cantilevered fourteen degrees forward in front of the centerline of the cart axle. After years of research, Jason had adopted a design by old-time horse logger Charlie Fisher in Andover, Ohio. The arch hoists each log high enough to avoid gouging the ground as it is pulled forward.

Todd didn’t have an arch yet. Without it, he and Dan left a noticeably deeper rut pulling one log than Jason had with three. Todd kicked twigs and forest duff into it. Jason taught erosion control through water diversion by piling up cull logs and brush, rather than by digging ditches or seeding. He didn’t like to plant grasses, as was commonly done on skid trails, because most seeds available tended to be non-native plants. There were non-native grass seeds in the horses’ manure, too, but Jason was resigned to having little control over that.


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