A tale of modern logging

A founding industry still thriving, changing

Drive almost any road in western Washington and you’ll pass seemingly endless acres of forest. Some of that wood will become houses, or kitchen cabinets, or two-by-fours for your next project. Who makes that happen?

A.L.R.T. Corporation, based in Everson and often referred to as ALRT, is a big part of Whatcom County’s modern logging industry. This locally owned company provides logging, log hauling, road building, rock crushing, drilling and blasting.

Logging and log hauling make up just 50% of company revenue, with road building responsible for 40% and trucking 10%. That’s less surprising when you realize that before you can do any logging, you first have to build a road into the forest.

ALRT has 55 employees and registered $13.2 million in revenue in 2020, down from $15.2 million in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

From tree to board
Whatcom County’s logging industry has been in a state of continual change for more than a century and a half — from the early 1850s, when Henry Roeder built a sawmill near Whatcom Creek, through the boom years of the 1920s, when Whatcom County boasted 75 sawmills, to the 2006 opening of Sierra Pacific Industries’ new sawmill in Burlington, which impacted the way ALRT does business.

ALRT’s customers include large sawmills and timberland owners in northwest Washington: Sierra Pacific Industries, Hampton Lumber Mills and Weyerhaeuser, plus smaller outfits such as Bloedel Timberlands, Canyon Lumber, Grandy Lake Forest Associates, Great Western Lumber, and Sirios Timber Partners.

When timberland owners are ready to log, they seek bids from logging companies such as ALRT. The logging company builds the road(s) in; one recent job necessitated building five bridges. Depending on terrain, road building may involve drilling and blasting. On timberland owned by Washington’s Department of Natural Resources, there are rock quarries.

“If you’re building a road on a DNR, you create your own rock and use that,” said Rod Lofdahl, ALRT’s vice president and chief financial officer. “The idea is to drill and blast and crush what you need for the job. There are lots of rules and regulations. We’re one of the few companies that has our own (driller and blaster).”

Most other logging companies subcontract ALRT or other specific drill/blast companies for this process.

With the road in place, what happens next depends on the steepness of the terrain.

Tower logging
If it’s steep, which is much of western Washington, a method called tower logging is used. Trees are felled by workers on foot with oversized chainsaws. ALRT’s tower is brought in and anchored in place with guylines. The tower is a metal tube, often 100 feet high or higher, capable of hoisting logs via cabling called a skyline. With the tower up, workers carry in enough cable to cover thousands of feet of mountainside, running from tower to tailhold (a tree, stump, or heavy vehicle) on a neighboring slope.

With the skyline in place, ALRT crews of what are called choker setters scramble up and among the logs, hooking them to cables. “Then they get out of the way,” Lofdahl said. People think of loggers as big and burly, but a choker setter is more likely to be lean and fit from traversing steep slopes, he said.

Carriages, also called sky cars, run along the skyline carrying logs. Think of a cable car on a ski slope, only with logs instead of skiers. The tower operator brings the sky car with its logs to an open landing, where the logs are sorted before being loaded onto trucks and rumbling away toward the appropriate sawmill. Mills specialize in certain species, say cedar or hardwood. Pulp mills make paper, and other mills crank out two-by-fours and such. The mill sells the processed wood to a retailer. Hardwood may go to a kitchen cabinet company, while two-by-fours could go to Home Depot.

When the slope is less steep, ALRT uses what are called mechanical sides instead of towers. A mechanical side can mean up to three machines and their operators. One of the machines, a processor, looks similar to an excavator. The machine cuts the tree, then grabs and holds it as it limbs and sections it.

Who owns all that timberland?
If ALRT is working with a small owner (5 to 10 acres), the company will buy timber from the owner and sell to the mill. If ALRT is working with large outfits such as Sierra Pacific in Burlington, which owns its own lands plus buys standing timber from DNR lands, ALRT will contract to harvest the timber and deliver it to the mill.

In the past 10 years, ALRT has shifted almost entirely to contract work, Lofdahl said.
Though numbers differ depending on source, according to the Department of Agriculture, 70% of harvested timber in Washington state comes from privately owned timberlands (private meaning families, individuals and corporations). Nearly 17% of the harvested timber comes from state-owned lands, 9.5% from tribe-owned, 2% from federally owned, and less than 1% from county- or city-owned.

Nationally, 60% of America’s forest lands are privately owned. The federal government owns 30%, and state, local and other governing bodies own 10%, according to the National Association of State Foresters.

The western states in general have more federal ownership than other parts of the country, Lofdahl said.

Among private owners throughout the nation, the largest by far is Weyerhaeuser, a real estate investment trust, which owns or controls 11 million acres in the United States. REITs allow anyone to purchase stock. (Earlier this year, Weyerhaeuser sold 145,000 acres in the North Cascades to Hampton Resources, another timber company.)

So, who owns that timberland you’re driving past? Maybe you. ■