A warm start to winter adds to challenges for Vermont’s logging industry
Recent snowfall has made it feel more like winter in Vermont. But warm temperatures through December into early January have already taken their toll on one industry: logging. Loggers rely on frozen ground to access certain forested areas, but it has been difficult so far this year. And the hot climate is just one of the challenges the industry faces.
Logger Brian Lafoe knows this all too well. On a recent January morning, he was in the cab of a machine called an expeditor in a patch of woods in East Burke. He maneuvered his mechanized arm to pick up logs that his son-in-law had cut, split, and stacked along a path they cut through the forest. As it moved through the forest, the forwarder left tracks in the ground. Usually, he said, that’s not a problem this time of year.
“In the winter you got this wet ground, the ground freezes, our machines are fine with it, we don’t do any damage,” said Lafoe.
But on this sunny morning, the temperature began to rise above freezing, which means that Lafoe has no time to do this work, otherwise he would start to damage the soil.
Brian Lafoe’s dispatcher picks up logs along a path in East Burke, Vermont. The machine left shallow tracks in the ground, which is usually not a problem in winters with more snow.
Winter is a crucial season for loggers like Lafoe. Typically, the frozen ground allows them to access sensitive forested areas almost every day. But this year, temperatures soared into the 50s in early January, and Lafoe pointed to areas of mud and ice where there should be deep snow.
“You shouldn’t be able to see this ground,” he said. “We should have snow now. Life must be good. It should be zero degrees. We should go.”
Instead, this work took Lafoe about two weeks longer than normal, and he will have to do more work in the summer to repair the broken wooden walkways. All in all, he guesses the weather will increase his costs by about 17%.
The warm winter is just the latest factor to hit Lafoe’s bottom line. The cost of diesel fuel has increased in 2022. So are prices for replacement parts to keep his machinery running. Fortunately, he paid off all his equipment, such as the freight forwarder, years ago.
“If I didn’t own all this stuff, I probably wouldn’t be doing it right now,” he said. “I would have retired.”
“You shouldn’t be able to see this ground. We should have snow now. Life must be good. It should be zero degrees. We should go.”
Brian Lafoe, owner of Lafoe Logging
In the 35 years since Lafoe began logging, the state has adopted stricter regulations for harvesting timber. These rules are intended to protect water quality by stopping erosion and preventing sediment and other material from entering streams and creeks. Lafoe said he is happy to follow the rules, although the costs add up. Logging practices, he said, have changed a lot since he started his business in 1988.
“Nobody cared, you know what I mean? Now, it’s like we spent a lot more time putting in bridges, putting in culverts,” he explained. “It takes care of the soil better.”
As he walked through the land Lafoe logs, forester David Senio explained that these forests used to be farmland.
“A forest is a dynamic thing,” he said. “What we’re doing is we’re manipulating this forest to help create conditions to become more like forest than old farmland.”
Forester David Senio, standing in front of a pile of balsam fir logs, said responsible management of forests can make them healthier in the long run.
With climate change, winters in Vermont are becoming shorter and more unpredictable, and cutting down trees, which store carbon, can add to the climate impact. But Senio argues there is also a climate-positive effect of logging: Responsible management of forests like this can make them healthier in the long run. However, warming winters limit how often loggers can do that work.
“How do you make more productive days in a year? You don’t,” he said.
All of Vermont’s $1.4 billion forest products industry is affected by the changing climate, he said, not just loggers but also sawmill operators.
Workers at Goodridge Lumber in Albany, Vermont, operate the company’s sawmill. Goodridge’s storage logs are running low, due to warm temperatures that have limited the timber harvest.
In Albany, Vermont, workers at Goodridge Lumber fed white cedar logs along a rotating saw blade and cut them into posts and planks. This mill naturally relies on woodcutters for wood. But because loggers haven’t been able to harvest as much this year, owner Colleen Goodridge said her sawmill’s supply of fresh logs is running low.
“This year we don’t have that extra stock that we had last year. So we hope that, you know, we have a strong next few weeks,” she said.
Sales are good right now, Goodridge said, but it’s not clear how long that will last. She is thinking of ways to diversify her business, such as finding markets for lower-quality wood. Still, she tries to be optimistic about the rest of the season.
“I am hopeful. And you know, we had cold weather in April,” she said. “We’ve had Aprils that went on and on. So we just don’t know.”
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Goodridge has been in the lumber business for 49 years. Her sons are now co-owners. But she worries about the future of this industry in Vermont. She said she would like to see more young people enter the business, but it is not for everyone.
“You have to have a strong mind, body, soul and a business mind, and be willing to put in the time it takes,” she explained. “And for some reason generations have done that.”
Colleen Goodridge, owner of Goodridge Lumber, hopes conditions will improve this winter, allowing loggers to harvest more wood.
However, the next generation will face high costs and the unpredictability of a changing climate.
“One of the many challenges of life, they say, you know, ‘to live is to experience change,'” Goodridge said with a laugh. “I think we live.”
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