Fresh from the Woods
Tony Madden, left, and his son, Derrick. (Photos courtesy of Forest Resources Association)
Maine loggers: There are good jobs in the woods
By Andrew Kekacs
Editor’s note: Economic turmoil, global warming and wildly fluctuating energy costs have led policy makers, scientists and investors to look more closely at the world’s forests. The shift in attention from Wall Street to Wytopitlock offers great promise and potential problems for Maine. In the coming months, Fresh from the Woods will focus on the capacity of Maine’s forests to provide new products and good jobs in an uncertain world.
We live in interesting times.
The economy is shrinking faster than at any time since the Great Depression. More than 13 million Americans are out of work, and even more are facing the potential loss of their homes. The impact of the recession can be felt in every part of the economy, from restaurants to auto restoration.
Natural resources are not immune. Yet in the face of what could be one of their most difficult years in decades, Maine loggers are cautiously optimistic that they will survive, and even prosper.
“Prices have dropped, but they were too high last year,” said Anthony Madden, a third-generation logger and owner of A.W. Madden Inc. in Milford. “Mill yards have too much inventory [of raw logs], and we might have a longer shutdown than normal for mud season. But business hasn’t really changed much for us yet.”
In fact, some loggers believe the future could be unexpectedly bright. Uncertainty over energy prices, and emerging technologies that transform wood into a host of high-value products, suggest that Maine’s forests will be more important – not less – in the post-recession economy.
“Look at Red Shield [the former Georgia-Pacific paper mill now called Old Town Fiber and Fuel],” said Gene Goodine, a logger from Lagrange. “They are going to be producing a jet fuel supplement [from wood fiber].”
The Old Town mill has a partnership with researchers at the University of Maine, who have developed a process to use wood to create virtually any chemical now made from petroleum. The Old Town bio-refinery plans to generate electricity, produce wood pulp and ultimately make jet fuel to complement its owners’ helicopter manufacturing business in Arizona.
Given the developments in wood technology, demographics – rather than economics – could be the biggest challenge for today’s loggers. As in farming, fishing and other natural-resource sectors, the logging workforce is growing older. Finding new workers is critical.
“I’ve got 20 good people,” said Madden. “It’s the best crew that I’ve ever had, but most of my best operators are 55 or older.”
Madden, who started his company in 1980, was chosen last summer as Outstanding Logger in the Northeast Region by the Forest Resources Association.
Madden’s Valmet processor fells a white pine.
Logging has changed dramatically since Madden was a child. His father and grandfather used horses, then crawler tractors, and finally cable skidders to move logs from the forest. All of that equipment required loggers to use chainsaws to fell trees, a physically demanding and dangerous task. Madden’s crews have come out of the weather and into the cabs of modern logging equipment.
“[The changeover] took the guys off the ground,” he said. “It is safer and more comfortable … They start the machines, turn on the heater or air conditioner, and switch on the stereo.”
Madden encourages young people to consider logging as a career. He looks for those who enjoy working outside, have basic repair abilities, an open mind and a willingness to learn. New loggers are trained in-house, he said.
The work day starts at 6 a.m. for Madden’s crews, and even earlier for many other loggers. But there is also a shutdown for about six weeks during mud season in the spring, and usually several weeks off in the fall. Earnings for loggers vary widely, but typically range from $30,000 to $40,000 per year.
“At least take a look at it,” he said to young workers. “Understand what we do.”
Goodine is also operating modern logging equipment, though on a smaller scale. He has been in the business for 18 years, starting with a small farm tractor on his own land and now working with a state-of-the-art, cut-to-length system. He was chosen as Mechanical Logger of the Year in 2008 by the Certified Logging Professionals program.
“The equipment is very expensive,” he said. “Maintenance is key. But after it is paid for, you should be able to make a good living.”
Gooding describes himself as “an outdoorsy guy,” someone who enjoys the independence of working in the woods and the satisfaction of a job well done.
A good reputation is very important, he said, because a successful logger operates on land owned by many satisfied owners. He mostly works on woodlands that were farmed less than 100 years ago.
Other challenges include the markets for raw logs, where which prices can change fast and unpredictably, and the weather, which can do the same.
A Timbco forwarder sorts logs on a landing.
Paul Vicneire, 38, of Embden, was named 2008 Conventional Logger of the Year by the Certified Logging Professionals program. He is the youngest of the three contractors, and still uses a chainsaw and skidder.
Vicneire has worked in the woods since he was a child, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Job satisfaction is important to him. So is the sense of freedom that comes from being his own boss.
“The hours are long,” he acknowledges. “It’s a tough job, and sometimes stressful … you have to go into it with an open mind. It can’t be all about money. Yes, I’m in it to make a living, but I also enjoy what I do.”
It’s not a job for a late riser. His day starts with a good breakfast at 4 a.m., and he is in the woods warming up his equipment by dawn. He often works seven days a week in the winter. But he still finds time to coach basketball and serve as a Scout leader.
Working in the woods demands that you always have to think about safety first, said Vicneire. He is a strong advocate of programs that train and certify loggers.
Vicneire focuses on specialty cutting. About 70 percent of the people who hire him live on the land that is being harvested, so aesthetics are extremely important.
“You have to care about the environment,” he said. “It’s not just a job. You are trying to leave a forest for your children.”
Fresh from the Woods is produced by Forests for Maine’s Future, a collaboration of Maine TREE Foundation, the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, the Maine Forest Service, and the University of Maine.