By Jillian Randel
Somewhere on the line between clear-cutting a forest and leaving it untouched lies a practice referred to as modern horse logging. This sustainable form of forestry is simultaneously a kick back to the past and the standard of the future.
Horse logging is an evolving industry driven by a close-knit community of environmentally-conscious foresters. One of them, Ian Snider, lives and operates his company, Mountain Works, out of Boone, N.C.
Upon first sight, it does not appear as though this slim, wiry man could gently maneuver thousands of pounds of logs, pulled by a team of horses, through the rough terrain of an Appalachian forest. But hold your breath because he does, and he does it well.
“The idea behind horse logging is to work smarter, not harder,” said Snider. “It is about going forward with a nod to the past.”
To initiate the horse logging process, trained foresters—called biological woodsmen—survey an area in search of trees to harvest. The woodsmen remove the weakest trees from the forest first, leaving the strongest standing to ensure the forest’s long-term growth.
“We choose to return the forest as much as possible to a healthy ecosystem intact with large mature stems and complex soil structure,” Snider said. “This is done by removing the worst trees first.”
Snider borrowed the “worst trees first” mantra from his mentor Jason Rutledge, a fellow horse logger in Virginia. Rutledge is the president of the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation, a nonprofit organization that teaches new biological woodsmen the methods of horse logging and oversees the Draftwood Forest Product brand.
In Snider’s eyes, draftwood forestry is coming closer to the needs of ecologic, economic and social sustainability everyday.
“We don’t just need wood now, we need wood in ten and twenty years,” said Snider. “Cutting an entire forest with heavy mechanization is the standard approach in conventional forestry. Our cottage industry of horse logging and restorative forestry takes a more community-scale approach.”
After the trees are selected and cut—through a method called directional felling that provides the best operational safety and the least damage to surrounding trees—Snider brings in a pair of horses to extract the fallen timber.
“We use what is called a modern horse-drawn log arch,” said Snider. “It’s like a chariot.”
The horse-drawn log arch partially suspends the harvested log on a small beam of wood placed between the horses so that it does not drag on the ground. As a team, two horses can pull greater weight while keeping the operator safely off the ground.
Horses are the ultimate, low-impact logging tool because they place one foot at a time when they walk, impacting only small areas of the forest floor. Machines, which continuously contract and spin on the ground, harm valuable leaf litter, humus and eventually the subsoil layer.
“This is about using animals as an appropriate tool in forest management,” Snider said. “Impact can be beneficial in certain management scenarios, but having (horses) as an option allows that impact to be fine-tuned.”
Additional benefits of horses are that they are solar-fueled, grazing in pastures rather than running on oil or gas, and can communicate with humans.
“Horses are self-repairing,” Snider said. “That is very valuable in terms of maintenance. The most significant asset is that horses are self-replacing. Machines still can’t have babies.”
Horse logging is most feasible on small, privately-owned tracts of land. The trend in forest land ownership is shifting to smaller tract sizes, with most individuals owning 60 acres or less.
“With that trend in place, it is becoming less economically viable for large industrial-sized equipment to be profitable and appropriate for forest land management in the United States,” said Snider. ”Horse logging is now more likely to be considered first rather than last for someone who wants to manage a small forest.”
It can take as long as a hundred years to regrow a clear-cut forest and make it profitable again. Horse logging in a small forest provides long-term profitability. Instead of getting one sum of money, it allows landowners to selectively extract trees over the long term and ensure continued growth of the forest.
“Disciplined investors don’t buy a stock and expect to cash in next week, they expect their return years down the road,” said Snider. “What we try to do is grow the largest amount of high value timber over the longest period of time while keeping the forest and its essential ecosystem services intact.”
Snider sees horse logging not as an echo of an earlier time, but as an important step toward the future.
“A lot of people think it is an old, anachronistic thing,” said Snyder. “But it is going to be essential for us to do things like this to realize true sustainability.”
Ian Snider lives with his wife Kelly and their draft horses, Frank and Jim, in Ashe County, N.C. More information is available about Mountain Works and Draftwood Forest Products online at mtnworks.org and draftwood.com.