Southwestern Virginia is home to one of the most botanically diverse forests in the temperate world....where roughly 7 out of every 10 acres here is forestland. Some loggers say the best way to preserve this bounty for future generations is by logging it… carefully.
Jason Rutledge has his sites on a 150-year old white oak in his forestland in Copper Hill
“It’s a tree that we’ve selected that is worst first it’s a tree that is not healthy and not doing well and we’re going to harvest it and make what we can out of it depending on how sound the wood is once we get it on the ground.”
Rutledge is one of a tiny fraction of loggers who don’t use tractors to harvest timber. He uses horsepower....as two chestnut draft horses pull a low profile specially designed wagon into the forest; an innovation from an Ohio man Rutledge calls his mentor, Charlie Fisher.
“And this is called the ‘Fisher Arch’, and we use this arch to provide front-end suspension. It lifts the log up in the air in front so it doesn’t dig in, gives me a safe place to ride and it lowers the impact of our work and capacity of the horses.”
Rutledge is an evangelist for the practice he calls ‘restorative logging’ taking out compromised trees, which allows healthier specimen nearby to thrive. As his team works at bringing down the huge Oak, he explains how using horses helps make his method truly renewable le, starting with the fact that horses run on hay.
“When we’re making hay, our little joke is’ we’re going to go out and wrap a string around a little piece of the sun because that’s what a hay bale is to us and so it is solar powered. And of course it is renewable because you’ve never gone out in the barn and found a baby tractor the next morning. Horses do replace themselves.”
It’s estimated one percent of logging in Virginia is done with draft horses. According to the Virginia loggers association, its members meet guidelines for sustainable logging. Depending on the needs of the landowner - and most timberland is privately owned in Virginia, they may selectively harvest, thin, or clear-cut. Still Rutledge’ approach differs both in substance and semantics.
“Here’s the issue for me: I don't’ like using the world ‘sustainable because I really don’t think that any of us know what sustainable is. But I do know that the condition of our forest is in decline and I believe that you can’t sustain a decline; that in order to even have a chance at being sustainable you have to be restorative."
Rutledge calls this tree gardening as opposed to tree farming. It’s small scale and a labor of love.
“This is feeling good about what you’re doing with your life. If that is not a valuable asset to your existence then you ‘re not going to make it doing this because you don't’ make a lot of money practicing restorative forestry. You make your money by being a thief of the future by taking all of the best growing trees now and selling them for what you can get now. It’s the difference between drive thru eating and home cooking with home grown ingredients. It’s a big difference in what I’m doing in the forest and what’s normally happening conventionally."
Jim Mooney is executive director of the Virginia Loggers Association. He says restrictions on logging national forest land, which comprises so much of southwestern Virginia’s forests, are doing more harm than good. “Well loggers have a higher stake in protecting the forest than anybody because that’s our livelihood. More timber is dying than we’re harvesting. That timber is getting old and stagnating and from a wildlife standpoint in particular, there’s no new timber brows coming up for wildlife.”
Even though Jason Rutledge also believes in preserving the forest by cutting trees…. “I don’t want my desire to actively manage the forest to over shadow my belief in wilderness and wildness. In the ninth grade we learned a thing called the scientific method. That means that whenever you do a treatment, you have to have a control that you do nothing on so that you know the results of your treatment. Wilderness is our opportunity to learn what nature has to teach us by doing nothing, so I believe in wilderness because we always need wild lands that are never touched.”