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Custer County's Last Logger

Custer County’s Last Logger

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles about people who make their living from the land in rural Idaho and some of the challenges they face. It’s the beginning of an ongoing story about people whose occupations are high-risk and both physically and mentally demanding. Many of them are ancestors of the first settlers who came here to homestead and produce natural resources that would support a growing nation. They are Idaho’s heritage and their sacrifices created an economy that allowed the rest of us to follow.

Rusty coils of barbed wire hanging from a fence post, a rock- walled tack shed, its battered roof made of poles, straw bales and dirt, a narrow switchback trail up a steep mountainside, and a cairn piled on a talus ridge. These are the images of Idaho’s heritage.  

Rural Idaho is so vast and desolate at times, it’s amazing how anything could live here. The harsh climate shows in the weathered faces of people who live here. But it’s also rich with water and good soil, minerals, timber, grass, game and fish.

Descendants of the original settlers, the farmers, ranchers, loggers and miners who are still finding a way to make a living, may not be here much longer. Many are of retirement age but continue working. Their sons and daughters aren’t interested in coming back home to raise families. Many rural counties are depopulating.

Important skills are disappearing with the people. People who know how to keep a chain saw sharp, how to build a fence, how to train horses and dogs, work cattle, operate heavy equipment, run a trap line, protect livestock from predators, and any number of other unique skills are disappearing from the landscape. People willing to earn a modest living in a remote area, and on top of all that be willing to pass those skills along to the next generation, are difficult to find.

This stark but stunning landscape known to many as “poverty with a view,” is also fraught with controversy. Management of public lands and wildlife are at the epicenter of the conflict. Idaho is 62 percent federal land and outdoor recreation is abundant. Millions of people travel here but few are keen to the controversy and cost associated with federal land management. The traditional industries that rely on federal land are losing access in many cases due to conflicts with recreational users and environmental groups. The cost of owning adjacent land is another challenge in many cases because of the threat of fire, noxious weed migration, and wildlife depredation.

The people who have found a way to hang on in these rural areas are a hearty lot. Many of the old traditions remain. They know how to cook from scratch, sew, use an arc-welder or braid a new set of horse-hair reins. They don’t live climate-controlled lives in cities where every comfort is at our manicured-fingertips.

Standing tall, taking on challenges and scratching out a living in Custer County, rancher, logger and trapper Tim Kemery is one such fellow.    

Forest products remains an important part of the economy in Idaho’s panhandle counties, but Endangered Species Act protections put in place in 1990 to save the spotted owl sounded a death knell for much of the industry. It shut down logging over vast swaths of the Pacific Northwest.

As a general rule of thumb, the economics of logging south of the Salmon River are challenging. There are exceptions but the trees, especially Douglas fir, are not as tall and have more taper, making them less desirable as saw logs. In addition, access to and transporting logs out of the forest contribute to the economic risks.

Although many skilled loggers and entrepreneurs willing to invest in the timber industry have moved on to more profitable areas, the need for forest management south of the Salmon River, remains.

Kemery wants to see the timber industry revitalized in Idaho. He believes if there is surety in the supply of logs, milling, and the many support jobs the timber industry supports, will come back and the state’s rural economy will reap benefits.

Kemery is working on a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Stewardship Contract project in the forest west of Challis.  He’s creating space between Douglas fir trees in a dense stand to enable sunlight to better penetrate the canopy. This helps the forest grow and gain in plant diversity, reduces the potential damage caused by wildfire and breaks up the insect and disease cycle.

During a recent tour sponsored by the Idaho Farm Bureau, Kemery discussed the ongoing project and the many ways it’s providing benefits to the land.

“We are hoping it will become a program that is ongoing,” Kemery said. “But that has not been decided yet. In Arizona and New Mexico they are thinning and treating a lot of acres because of massive wildfires. The wood is being utilized as firewood, which is a real hungry market right now.”

Kemery placed a per-acre bid with BLM and received the contract to thin 187 acres in three units. There are another 900 acres set to go up for bid. The contract requires 20-foot spacing between the remaining trees. All brush and trees taller than four feet are cut and the slash is scattered. The stumps are cut low, nearly at ground level. Kemery said the weight of snow will press the slash against the forest floor and help begin decomposition. The marketable timber cut from the stand is graded and stacked in decks. However, due to climate and other factors, the Douglas fir in this particular stand is relatively low value due to its height and higher than average taper.

Most of the marketable trees are being sawed into mine timbers. Kemery said the Iron Creek Mine near Salmon is buying all of the 8X8 and 4X6 timbers he can produce. Another mine getting ready to start up near Mackay is also interested in timbers, he said. The wood is also being sold for pole barns, house logs and firewood.

“Part of the product that we are providing to the BLM is undamaged residual trees,” Kemery said. “We have to be super careful in the way we fell and skid the trees.”

Thinning and careful handling of the excess wood helps the health of the remaining trees and the small trees that will begin to grow after the treatment project is complete. Thinning facilitates sunlight to the forest floor and also breaks up the life cycle of the Tussock moth, the most troublesome insect in the area.

Kemery said thousands of Tussock moths swarm in the summer afternoons and it looks cloudy like a white haze. The pupa stage of this insect is a white worm that is laid in the bark of large trees. The worms drop out of the trees and need to land on young trees in the understory in order to survive. Thinning the forest helps break the cycle.

“Strengthening the stand of timber we are leaving behind is an investment in our future,” Kemery said.

Yet another benefit to the project is fire resiliency. The area of this particular stewardship contract borders the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. Firefighters can’t use modern firefighting methods inside wilderness boundaries. During the tour Kemery emphasized that it’s important to thin and treat forested areas surrounding wilderness areas to help reduce fire intensity.

Catastrophic wildfires often create so much heat that soils are sterilized which makes healing the forest after a fire an even bigger challenge. In thinned, managed forest areas, fires are much less intense because ladder fuels are reduced and the fire isn’t able to jump from tree to tree as easily.

“These projects are important because they build resiliency into a stand of timber,” he said. “When we reduce fuel-load fires won’t burn as hot and the soil resource will be protected. That way you continue to build the soil and the stand is resilient against insects and disease.”

The biggest problem Kemery has encountered on the project relates to labor. He would like to have at least three loggers to fell trees and spread the slash but the cost of liability insurance and worker’s compensation insurance is prohibitive, he said. In addition, availability of people with logging experience is low and finding others willing to learn is even more difficult. It’s hard, dangerous work and they spend many nights in the forest rather than traveling home.

Kemery and many of his colleagues in Custer County continue to hack a living out of this harsh country. But access to forest land, lack of available labor and many other challenges confront them. In our next installment of this series we will take a closer look at ranch life and the challenges of the livestock industry.