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Logging Project Improves Forest Health

Logging Project Improves Forest Health

Tim Kemery is a logger, rancher and trapper. He is a member of the Custer County Farm Bureau Board of Directors. During a recent tour he discussed forest management and showed a forest thinning project that is part of a BLM Stewardship Contract.


Article and photos by John Thompson

The infrastructure that supports logging, including mills, equipment and skilled workers, is mostly gone from most of rural Idaho.

Forest products remains an important part of the economy in the 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.

Although most of the skilled loggers and entrepreneurs willing to invest in the timber industry moved on, the need for forest management didn’t disappear.

Custer County logger Tim Kemery wants to see the timber industry revitalized in Idaho. Kemery 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.