Time to Fly?

Spring 2002

You can just imagine it. In the late 1880’s two old-time loggers are in a fighting mad argument when one states, “I’ll believe what you say the day logs fly!” Well, even though those loggers aren’t here to see it, that day has come. Helicopters have emerged as a valuable tool as forest stewards focus on the management of physically and politically challenging sites.

Although the concept of helicopter flight has been around for centuries, the first mention of rotary flight was found in a Chinese text written about AD 320. Leonardo da Vinci produced a sketch of a helicopter in 1483, but it wasn’t until 1907 that a French inventor’s assistant lifted two feet off the ground in a helicopter for approximately one minute. Currently, there are machines that can lift payloads of up to 30,000 pounds!

In North America, helicopters have been used for transporting logs since around 1957. Being used primarily to access high-value timber that could be reached in no other way, they played a relatively minor role until recently. Throughout the last decade, helicopter logging has dramatically increased. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, responding to public concerns about negative impacts associated with timber harvesting and road building, are the primary agencies responsible for this increase.

Low site impact is the main advantage of helicopter logging. With a helicopter, there is virtually no soil disturbance, and when using a good crew, damage to the residual stand is minimal. Also, aesthetically sensitive areas can be harvested without visual scars from roads or skid trails. With these benefits, it is much easier for timber sales containing a high percentage of helicopter logging to make it through the federal planning process. In addition, these advantages have produced a higher demand for helicopters by private landowners.

Because of this increased demand, there are more helicopter logging companies operating in the Inland Northwest. In turn, this has led to increased competition and lower logging costs. Another advantage of having more operators is the increased likelihood of an operator being able to move efficiently into a smaller job on private land. According to Jeffrey L. Sample, CEO of Precision Helicopters, Bonners Ferry, the likely minimum feasible size for a helicopter operation is 100,000 board feet, although it varies considerably with the logistics for each operation. He adds that the more flexible you can be with the timing of your sale, the easier, and likely more inexpensive, it will be. These factors, coupled with higher log values, have made it much more economical, and thus more popular, for smaller landowners to also use helicopter logging.

Although there are more situations that justify helicopter use, cost and logistics are still limiting factors. At $18-22 per minute for the commonly used ships and support crews in our area, careful professional planning is necessary for a logging operation to be successful.

In addition to the silvicultural demands of the stand, logistical components must be considered. For most helicopter logging operations to be profitable, a turn or “flight” of logs needs to come in to the landing in two minutes or less. Commonly in the Inland Northwest, ships target approximately 3,500 pounds for each turn. (This equates to roughly 300 board feet depending on variables such as species and moisture content.) In other words, they need to fly between one and two log truckloads to the landing per hour.

Although helicopter logging has its limitations and is still expensive, costs are lower now than in the past. Currently, helicopter logging costs generally run from a minimum of $250/MBF to well over $300/MBF. These figures include all costs associated with harvesting logs and delivering them to a nearby sawmill.

Lower prices, coupled with greater concern about the impact our activities are having on our environment, have made helicopter logging a viable and valuable tool for managing our forests.

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