AN AMERICAN SLANT ON NZ LOGGING
WHY ON EARTH A SUCCESSFUL American logger ended up owning and harvesting a forest in the rural back-blocks of New Zealand at a time when he should be retired and enjoying the fruits of his labours back home, beats me.
But Steve Henderson is no ordinary logger.
The man from the north-western US state of Idaho has invested a small fortune buying up land near Wanganui, planting trees and then shipping out some exotic machinery to harvest them.
On top of that, he’s even operating machines at the coalface, sorry, bush face. All at the age of 69.
Welcome to H& J Forestry Ltd, the second of the two crews working for Feilding-based forest manager, FOMS, which NZ Logger visited recently to see the fruits of some inventive thinking being applied to facilitate woodlot harvesting as the Wall of Wood gets ever-closer.
In many respects, H & J Forestry is the antithesis of the Morepork Forest Harvesting crew that graced the pages of last month’s magazine.
Whereas Morepork needed FOMS to provide a yarder for it to lease and is pretty typical of small woodlot crews tackling steep sites around the country, H&J Logging is a larger, well-resourced unit that reminds me of slick contracting crews working in
corporate forests on the central plateau.
It’s hard to compare the two and, in fact, I won’t. They are two completely different beasts and it would be unfair on either to draw any comparisons between them.
What I can say, is that FOMS is incredibly lucky that Steve Henderson landed on its doorstep a couple of decades ago and decided he wanted a slice of the booming New Zealand forestry scene of the 1990s.
He purchased a 1,000-acre site to plant in Radiata pines then splashed out on some more blocks to add to his forestry holdings, realising his dream of being a forest owner not just a harvesting contractor.
Bit of background. Steve is the son of a farmer-cum-forester who went to Oregon State University in order to get a wellpaid job on graduation. Whilst studying he earned his keep as a part-time member of a forestry crew during holidays.
“I graduated, got one of those good jobs and made less than the summer before, falling trees, so I went back to the woods the next year,” says Steve.
“I decided working in forestry could make a lot of money, so I talked my dad into buying an old D7 Cat and that was the start of it.
“I’ve been logging for over 40 years in Idaho. It may not seem a traditional forestry state to some people, but there is a lot of forestry in the interior. Parts of it get about
as much rain as Oregon.”
Steve was fortunate to get a contract with a corporation that owned one million acres of forest, which got his business, Steve Henderson Logging, off to a sound start and he became its largest contractor.
“I had 70 people on the ground and 50 logging trucks working for me – we used to do about 150 truck loads a day,” he says.
Clearly, it wasn’t enough because Steve began to look further afield, adding: “I came down here in 1994 and saw how fast Radiata grew. I’d heard about it for a long time and I said I always wanted to retire on my own tree farm, but I never dreamed it would be half-way around the world.”
There was existing forestry on some of the blocks purchased by Steve, but the majority was farmland. Planting started 19 years ago, so they won’t be ready to be harvested for a while. That hasn’t stopped Steve thinking about cutting the trees down, and indeed, actively preparing for it.
Visiting New Zealand every year around February and March, Steve has made a number of contacts within the local forestry community to learn more about what it takes to harvest in this country.
“We been planning on this for a long time,” he says.
“My first trip over I got acquainted with Hugh Grey of Brightwater and he put me onto the guys in Nelson, Ross and Derek Wood, and I’ve been friends with them for some time.
“They put me onto (the late) Mike Bartells when FOMS first got started and, well, here we are today.”
Where we are today – privately-owned Rangatatau Forest, about 40 minutes north of Wanganui – is not actually owned by Steve. It’s owned by another American who Steve is friendly with and is managed by FOMS. It is being harvested by the crew Steve has formed in New Zealand to eventually carry out the harvesting of his own trees. As he said earlier, he does like to plan ahead.
The crew is a partnership between himself and Wanganui-based logger, Sam Johnstone, who was suggested to Steve by FOMS director, Marcus Musson.
Sam has been in the industry almost a dozen years and he brought the team together last November to form H & J Forestry (which stands for Henderson and Johnstone).
Talk about falling on your feet. Not only did Sam get to partner with a very experienced logging contractor with plenty of contacts, he also got the pick of the forestry machines that Steve had in his US operations.
Steve, has been shipping equipment to New Zealand that he deemed would be suitable for harvesting his own forests over the past couple of years, starting with an old Tigercat 635 grapple skidder.
Then came a Cat D7 dozer, a Madill 3800 with a Waratah 625C for processing, a John Deere 2454D for loading, a Tigercat 855 leveller fitted with a Woodsman 1350 felling head for harvesting duties (Steve’s son also runs this same set-up in the US) and a TimberPro TF840B 8-wheel-drive forwarder that can haul 30 tonnes of logs.
But the machine he spends most of his time with is something we’ve never seen in New Zealand – a top-of the-range John Deere 3754G. It’s bigger than any John Deere tracked forestry machine sold into this market to date, tipping the scales at almost 44 tonnes and running a 202kW (271hp) version of John Deere’s 9-litre straight six.
“CablePrice hasn’t even got one yet,” says Steve. “Their mechanics were crawling all over it when they came out to do some work on that other loader.”
This machine was bought for one of the US operations and had already clocked up 700 hours on road building duties in Idaho before it was shipped here.
It’s being used for the same work on this particular job, where it is fitted with an unusual-looking thumb and a bucket. Steve is pioneering the route, ripping out trees and doing initial ground work for the D7 to follow.
This is very familiar work for Steve, who says: “We did road lining and harvesting at the same time in Idaho, we did everything but helicopter wood out. This is just a small version of what I once was.
“Everybody thinks I’m crazy but I’m on
vacation now, this is nothing compared to what I used to do. It’s kinda fun. I’m 69, my dad, he worked till he was 88 – logged and farmed all his life. I reckon I’ve still got a good few years ahead of me.”
The H& J Forestry crew has been working in this forest for the best part of six months and Steve has extended his usual trip to help build the roads and platforms.
“In this forest, we’ve got 9kms to start with on this side, we’re hoping to get it all done real soon without too many weather interruptions,” he says. “We’ll be close to half finished once I’m done with this.”
Marcus Musson, from FOMS says this particular block of 25 hectares within the 200 hectares being harvested will provide the winter setting for the crew because it won’t get as boggy as other parts of the forest.
He’s full of praise for what H& J Forestry has achieved since it moved in here, adding: “You only need to see what these guys have done in the short amount of time they’ve been in this forest.
“There’s no one else that I have seen that can do what these guys have done in that amount of time.”
Steve directs all the praise to the rest of the team, adding that he’s “just the parttimer who gets in the way sometimes”. But you can tell that he’s having the time of his life in that cab.
The landscape is not too dissimilar from what his crews have logged in the US, maybe a tad hilly.
“It’s pretty steep coming around there, I had to completely build it,” he gestures at the track he’s creating on the crest of the ridge.
“I try to leave everything I can for the dozer – I take the trees out of the way. I don’t know if many people just push the trees over, but we do it for safety. If you just saw (off) the trees at the stumps you have to pack them somewhere.
“I enjoy being at the controls and we’re pressed for time. I had people do this for me at home because I couldn’t afford to be on the machine, but I’ve got time now.
“I’ve worked on a lot more machines, but not the likes of the Waratahs and those things. I like good machinery that’s capable of doing the job.
“That TimberPro, sure it’s expensive for an operation like this, but I thought it was the key to handling these short logs and all the sorts that you do. We don’t always pull 30 tonnes every load, but close to it, and I wish it was faster. I’ve always been a speed demon.”
Then Steve hints at something even more expensive and exotic that is on its way from the US to help cope with the steeper terrain.
“We’re building a hauler that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” he says, with a broadening smile. “
“We’re taking a 470 John Deere (a 50-tonne excavator) and part of my idea came from Ross Wood. He’s a real innovator and he put a set of winches on a 325 that he’s tethered with and I thought why wouldn’t that work on a yarder.”
Some of you might be thinking it’ll be
a ‘yoader’ – a combined yarder/loader, similar to the Harvestlines built by EMS in Rotorua. Except that it won’t do any loading work at all.
“It’s a lot like Chris Hancock’s Harvestline, only it’s a regular yarder with a 475hp engine, 6-speed transmission and everything interlocked, with a 50ft mast – Chris is a real innovator, too, we’re getting one of his new Hawkeye grapple carriages,” says Steve.
“We hope this new machine does everything we think it will. It’s designed to go on ridge tops where you can’t guy a regular yarder the way you should. I’ve seen more yarders down here with bent track frames because they’ve been guying too low.”
The 470 yarder is due to be completed in a workshop in Idaho and shipped out here in a few months after testing in the US. A great reason for NZ Logger to pay a return visit to see the yarder in action and put it through an Iron Test.
It’s all part of the grand plan. And so was getting someone like Sam Johnstone on board to run the crew.
“I enjoy helping people like Sam into the business,” says Steve. “We put the capital into the machinery and he brings everything else.
“My biggest asset all these years has been my people and that was the hardest thing for me to do when I wanted to get out of it and figure out how to go without hurting them.
“I had people right there with me night and day, some for more than 20 years, making it work. You just can’t walk off and leave guys that have given you that much of their life and laid it on the line – most people would love to have my worst help.
“My son took over a portion of the business and three of the employees took over other sides. One of them failed but all the rest of them made it. At least I could leave with a clear conscience and say I did what I could.”
From the work already achieved by Sam Johnstone and the team in H & J Forestry to date, he won’t have to worry about the future fortunes of the New Zealand business that he’s started up.
You get the impression that Steve looks upon Sam as a surrogate son and the feeling seems to be pretty mutual when we catch up with Sam on the next ridge, where the rest of the crew is doing the clear-cut harvesting.
“He’s extremely hands on and he’s a
good man to learn from – he’s built up a lot of knowledge in 40 years of forestry,” says Sam.
Becoming his own boss has been a steep learning curve for Sam, but the assistance and advice from his American business partner has eased the process.
“I’m just a Wanganui boy,” he says. “Been in forestry about 11 years and I’ve known Marcus a long time and he mentioned that Steve was looking to bring some gear over and was looking for a keen young guy to take on the challenge.
“I spent the last three years at an Ernslaw forest at Kaitoki, just out of Wanganui, it was a mechanised crew and that’s where I learned a lot about mechanised harvesting. I wasn’t foremen there, but I do know how to run a crew and have been a foreman in the past. Even still, this was a big learning curve for me.”
The core of this crew were hand-picked by Sam from people he’s got to know in the region during his time with other operations.
“There’s a couple of them I didn’t know, but asking around I liked what they did and it’s worked out really well having them here,” he says. “We’ve got a good group of guys and that’s what it comes down to at the end of the day.”
All up, there are seven people in the crew, including Sam and Steve, which will expand to eight when the yarder arrives. Considering they do their own roadlining as well as harvesting, it’s a pretty tight and efficient organisation.
It helps that they’ve got the right gear and Sam acknowledges the good fortune in having someone like Steve bankroll such a great collection of equipment.
He can’t really believe his luck in having a machine like the TimberPro at his disposal from the get-go. It’s actually been sitting around for a couple of years in the US, waiting to be used, before being shipped here.
Are they able to make full use of its potential in such a hilly forest, I ask?
“It is paying,” says Sam, “I don’t think I’d go back really, they are such a useful tool.
“We are getting close to 30 tonnes of logs on the back on most runs. It’s really working well for us.
“It’s good wood. We did 216 loads last month, so around 10 or 11 trucks per day. It’s a good start – we’re getting there. It’s not where we want to be, but we’re making progress.
“We are doing a lot of our processing out in the cutover, so it gives us a chance to spread the crew out a bit and forward the wood so we are not in such a confined area.”
The combination of roadlining and production harvesting also requires careful balance of the crew’s resources to avoid delays and downtime.
Sam, who operates the Tigercat levelling harvester, says: “So how we work is whatever I can do on this machine to get ahead of Steve I’ll do that, otherwise he’s been having to push a lot of trees over as he makes tracks and put them to the side to get through.
“But we’re clear-felling at the same time, so I have to come back and get trees on the groun d and leave him to get on. It is a struggle to keep the roads ahead with the volume coming out but it is working.
“It’s probably not enough to feed this angry machine (TimberPro), because we’re roadlining at the same time and not just concentrating on clear felling.”
The trees that are cut down as part of the roadlining operation are dragged back to the skid site by the 635 skidder, which ensures the forwarder is employed on the more lucrative clear-fell work.
Helping out with the roadlining on the Cat dozer is John O’Leary who is a veteran of New Zealand forestry, with a history dating back to native logging days.
“We’re pretty lucky to have an operator like him with that sort of experience on board,” says Sam. “We have a huge amount to learn off him and we’re always picking his brains.”
The TimberPro is operated by Craig O’Leary, who has yarder experience so is likely to be pressed into action on the new machine when it arrives.
Although it has its own loading boom with grapple, the TimberPro is usually unloaded on the skid site by Daniel Purcell in the John Deere 2454, because it’s so much faster.
The crew’s newest recruit, Dui Taione, is employed as a skiddy/QC and was undergoing training the day we visited.
Out at the cutover, Mike Whitehead uses the Madill 3800C and Waratah 625C to process the stems brought down by Sam’s Tigercat and turn them into logs.
One thing I’ve noticed about all the tracked machines in this crew is that every one of them has a live heel, including the Tigercat harvester and Madill processor. It seems to be a peculiarly US thing, giving the operator the opportunity to control stems and longer logs with more accuracy when placing them on the ground or shovelling them up or down hill. In this terrain, there’s a fair amount of shovelling required so the heels come in handy.
We’ve walked out to the cutover to see how H & J Forestry manages to harvest and recover wood on these hills without tethering the falling machine or having the benefit of a yarder.
Sam acknowledges the constraints and says: “Being a ground base crew it is a challenge to get wood off these slopes, so we’ve put some longer toenails on the machine I use to hold it.
“Whenever you come across a group of Pongas in there you know there is a bit of moisture in the ground, so I take extra care. We also have a contract faller who comes in to do the places I can’t reach.
“We don’t use the winch on the back of the skidder to pull anything. We’re managing to grab all of it this way. What I can’t reach, the contract faller comes in and drops them down to where we can get them. It’s just planning where the cut-off point is going to be without pushing it too far. We know there is going to be a yarder coming in so we can leave areas that it will be able to work.”
Sam is looking forward to the arrival of the yarder and the crew is already setting up areas of the forest in readiness for its arrival.
It will be the missing link in what is already an impressive US/Kiwi operation and I can’t wait to come back and see it in action.
The yarder will fulfil the dreams of Steve Henderson to be able to effectively harvest the trees from his own forest when the time comes. And the crew he helped to establish will continue his legacy when he finally decides to hang up his hard hat NZL
They started life in the US state of Idaho and now these machines are getting their second wind in forests around Wanganui.
This TimberPro TF840B has been sitting it out in the US for the past two years, waiting for its chance to go to work.
Above: The H & J Forestry crew (minus part-owner Steve Henderson), from left, Craig O’Leary, Daniel Purcell, John O’Leary, Sam Johnstone (the other part-owner), Mike Whitehead and Dui Taione.
Facing page: QC/skiddy, Dui Taione (left), is shown how to sharpen a chainsaw blade by trainer, John Reid.