The truck is built to hold up to 8,000 board feet of timber. It usually hauls 32 to 34 tons per load, depending on the size of the logs. It’s blue, with the name “JL and Sons Logging” printed neatly on the door. It shakes and whines as it chugs along the highway, heading toward the Bighorn Mountains in Johnson County on a bright Wednesday morning.
It’s 7:30 a.m., a late start for Joe Landsiedel, because he’s bringing along a reporter today. Usually, he’s up by 4 a.m., he said, and almost finished with his first load of logs by now. Plus, he hauls until after dark.
It’s an hour up to the site off of Hazelton Road. The truck turns left onto a small dirt road and then left again onto an even narrower dirt road.
Typically, by this time of year, he’d have to plow his way down the road, but a spell of warm weather has kept the road clear. He’ll work as long as the weather lets him get back to the site, as long as he can plow the roads, or until the job is finished, he said. Hopefully, the latter comes first.
Compared with other Western forests, the Bighorns don’t boast a large logging industry, particularly for saw logs.
This mountain range is an outlier market. Without a large local mill, wood ends up traveling over 300 miles for processing. And a recent downturn in the timber market means that outliers are the first to get dropped, said Kelly Norris, the Wyoming State Forestry district forester in Buffalo, in a previous interview.
The timber market itself is facing uncertainties, Norris said, including the November merger of Weyerhaeuser Co. and timber giant Plum Creek and the expiration of the 2005 Softwood Lumber Agreement between Canada and the U.S. that had placed a tarriff on government-subsidized Canadian timber sold in U.S. markets.
Out-of-state companies that previously purchased timber from the southern Bighorns, including Tricon Timber and R-Y Timber, are already pulling back, Norris said.
But the nonlocal big-timber market isn’t the only category, Landsiedel says as the truck rolls on.
In the Bighorns, there’s still a market for smaller logs – post and pole and firewood, he says. And there’s a small group of persistent local contractors who eke out a living, Landsiedel among them.
Cutting trees, rebuilding pine
Dressed in jeans, a thick flannel work shirt and suspenders, Landsiedel is the quintessential logger.
He’s logged most of his life – though he spent some years also working as a firefighter – and learned his trade from his family.
“I’ve got sawdust in my blood,” he said.
He used to log in Washington. Outspoken, he says that the spotted owl – whose listing under the Endangered Species Act placed restrictions on logging in old-growth forests and caused tension between loggers and environmentalists in the ’90s – ordeal killed his career there.
So he moved to Buffalo, he said, and has been logging here for the past 23 years, riding all of the ups and downs along the way. Mostly, he does private timber sales for landowners, but he also bids on state and federal projects.
Landsiedel’s latest project, 50 acres of state land, opens up ahead as he backs the truck into the site. The site is surrounded on three sides by private land and by federal land on the other.
There is an opening, free of trees, that spreads out like a large meadow. The clearcut is bordered by tall lodgepole pines, at least 100 years old. The air smells like sap.
Landsiedel’s subcontractor drives a heavy skid across the opening, pulling felled pines behind him. They’re added to the growing pile next to the truck, where two more members of the crew stack them neatly.
Everything is hand cut, Landsiedel explains. The crew of three cuts everything using chainsaws instead of big machines that are used in mechanical logging.
For those unfamiliar with forestry practices, the sight of a clearcut might be shocking. It isn’t pretty, exactly, but it is healthy, in this case.
“Clearcuts are the prescription for lodgepole pines,” Norris explains, when she visits the site later.
It’s the forestry treatment that’s most likely to help the pines regrow into a healthier forest. The pines here and on the surrounding parcels are mostly 100-year-old lodgepole pines, or older. They’re old and stagnant, full-grown.
Clear cutting, followed by scarification – essentially scraping back the top layer of pine needles and dirt on the ground – reveals bare mineral soil, the lodgepole pine’s preferred seedbed.
The clearcut also lets the sun in. Because lodgepole pine cones are serotinous, they need heat to open to release seed. Next summer, the sun should do the trick, Norris said. The heat should open the cones, which will allow younger, healthier trees to grow.
The after-life of a pine
Landsiedel sits above the truck bed in a lofted chair, maneuvering a swing machine. It looks like a claw crane, the arcade game where children try to grab stuffed animals, but this claw grabs trees and hoists them into the truck and trailer.
While bigger, out-of-area companies might only be interested in saw logs, Landsiedel harvests all sizes, even the small stuff, he said
It takes about two hours to load the truck. He has to sort through the piles and choose what logs to take by size, depending on where that particular load will end up, Landsiedel said.
There’s a market for all the different sizes, though those markets might be different, Landsiedel said.
Larger saw logs are shipped via railroad out of Sheridan to R-Y Lumber or sold to Buckingham Lumber in Buffalo.
The smallest stuff usually ends up as firewood. It’s typically sold to the local community, either directly or through other local firewood distributors. Sometimes, it takes a while to sell it, and the wood will sit at Landsiedel’s house, he said.
It’s better than leaving it on the ground, though, he said. From a forest management standpoint, taking the wood removes fuels from the ground and helps to mitigate fire risk.
From a business standpoint, it helps to keep a good reputation. Piles of wood don’t look good and aren’t what a paying landowner wants to see on his property, Landsiedel said.
Since his business runs mostly on referrals, his livelihood depends on doing a good job, he said.
The current load will end up as fence posts. Landsiedel sells the timber to Mountain Products in Buffalo, owned by Glen Jenkins, where it’s stripped and smoothed and turned into poles. The poles are shipped to South Dakota for treatment and then sold. Often, they end back up in Wyoming.
A tough life
By mid-morning, Norris stops by to survey the site, catching up with Landsiedel and his crew.
They also chat with the landowner whose property butts up against this one.
Logging in the Bighorns is essentially about making relationships with landowners so that they feel comfortable hiring him on, Landsiedel says.
It takes time and effort, but it’s worth it.
“The nice thing about working in the Bighorns, it’s the landowners, the people and the agencies. They’re great,” he said.
Eventually, the truck is full. Landsiedel checks the chains, twice, and then starts back down the mountain to Mountain Products, where he’ll deliver the load.
So far this year, Landsiedel has hauled 125 loads just from this particular site. There’s still 30 or so left to go.
As we drive back down the mountain, he talks about the cost of keeping his business alive.
“It’s not a life you get into to get rich,” he says.“The only way to make anything on these sales is to utilize every piece. That’s saw logs, post and pole, firewood. If you’re able to get every scrap of wood and haul it and sell it, that’s the only way to come out on top,” he said.
It’s a tough life, he said.
Costs, such as maintenance for his logging truck, are going up, even as the market dips. Fuel has gone down, but that’s the only thing. Insurance, for instance, has almost doubled in the past year, even though his driving record is clean. Replacement costs on equipment are high, chainsaws are almost double what they used to be, and the cost of labor has increased, he said.
“We’re paying more for timber than we have in a long, long time, just to stay competitive,” he said.
Where he grew up, logging was a family trade, Landsiedel says. Fathers taught sons, and the tradition carried on.
Landsiedel’s truck says “and sons” on it.
When asked about it, he scoffs. He’s encouraging his sons to pursue other jobs, steady ones in town where there’s a guaranteed paycheck and a roof over their heads, he says.
Despite the costs, the isolation, and the ever-challenging market, Landsiedel hangs on.
Logging is the only life he can imagine.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he says.
He doesn’t want to work for a boss.
“Believe me, I’ve tried,” he says.