Logging truckers a dying breed

By Tony Anthony/Special for the Journal
The Ukiah Daily Journal
March 19, 2004

It's just before 5 a.m., pitch black, and Morgan Baynham is hoping he doesn't hit a deer as he races up Boonville Road in his tiny Honda to his house in Philo, where his logging truck waits in his driveway to be fired up for the day's work.

His loading slot is 7 a.m. where he must be at "the landing" in a forest owned by Mendocino Redwood Company, and he doesn't want to be late. Morgan, one of the survivors in the logging industry, is one of only about 15 logging truck drivers working today in and around Ukiah.

A burly and usually contented man, he suddenly creases his forehead with a frown when he says "We are a dying breed. When I started driving in 1978, there were at least 50 of us, probably more than that," he corrects himself. "The drivers went the way of the industry. In the heydays of logging, there used to be a steady stream of trucks traveling the roads in the forests around here."

Morgan's bright red Peterbilt waits for him beside his home in the country. The truck, which when empty carries its trailer above the eight rear wheels of the tractor, will be connected later at the pick up sight.

It is obvious from the moment he fires up the 500 horsepower Cummins diesel engine, that "Tinkerbelle," an odd name for such a powerhouse, is an object of beauty to him. The truck is his home from sun-up to sunset and, more than that, it is an all-important source of income that allows him to feed and support his wife and two children.

It's important to note that "Tinkerbelle" cost just shy of $100,000, which makes the point that an owner-operator like Baynham has to be not only a good businessman but have a good and reliable reputation to stay in the game. Today, he's one of a half-dozen drivers subcontracting to haul for McFarland Trucking, a company that also operates its own fleet.

The CB is the key

As he slowly backs the huge truck down his driveway and then heads up toward Piper Ranch, through which is a right-of-way to the forest, he talks to his truck, suddenly giving a very human quality to what some might consider just a vehicle. The CB radio hanging from the roof above the windshield, now becomes his lifeline, his connection with the job he is on. Within minutes, he has determined exactly which trucks are in front of him, behind him, and most importantly, which ones are traveling down the road he is on, filled with upwards of 50,000 pounds of fresh cut timber.

Just as airline pilots traveling the same routes update each other with critical information about the weather ahead, the logging truckers share pertinent facts about road conditions. Frank, who is on the road somewhere in front of him, informs Morgan about his truck coming down the hill.

"You'll meet me on the turn," he says, and sure enough, the truck appears, moments later. When Morgan pulls to the side, giving the loaded truck plenty of room to pass, Frank waves thanks.

For each driver, knowing the exact position of a truck they are about to meet, especially on logging roads, is a matter of critical importance. The narrow dirt roads are just wide enough to accommodate one truck at a time, and for that reason the trucks can pass only where there is pull-off space.

The fully loaded truck coming from the landing site has the right of way, so the "empty" makes it his job to be out of the way. It is not easy to stop a truck weighing 40 tons including its load and there are stories, of course, about the ones that couldn't stop, trucks that dropped their load of logs and of trailers that flipped over.

Drivers who haul logs have to be really good at their job, and drivers like Morgan Baynham and Frank Pickrell who have been doing this for decades are the best.

A tight-knit group

"We support each other this way," Morgan says. "We are a tight-knit group who help each other in every way we can." This becomes evident when we finally reach the landing, where Morgan jumps out to help a driver named Jim secure his load by tossing tie cables over the top of the load. The cables tie the logs to the trailer. Each waiting driver affords the same favor to the driver ahead of him, before wishing them well on their trip down the precarious road, where one side cuts into the side of a steep mountain and the other drops off into a deep ravine.

Baynham explains, "the roads are cut through the forest in a way that creates the least possible impact to the environment," a sentiment heard repeated again and again about what is now the most highly regulated industry in America.

The roads are built and maintained to produce a minimum of sediment, which can wash into forest streams. During the dry season, the roads are sprayed with water to minimize dust that can damage streams as well. It's evident that loggers are more interested than ever in keeping the forests pristine. After all, loggers better than anyone understand that healthy forests are good for business. It's good harvesting practices that feed their families.

Many operations similar to this one are halted by sightings of northern spotted owls nearby. All operations are strictly controlled by state and federal forest and environmental agencies.

The moment Morgan's truck is backed up to the waiting piles of "decked" logs, a man operating a "heel boom" loader pulls up behind the truck.

Within a few seconds, he gingerly plucks the trailer off the back of the tractor, placing it on the ground in perfect position to be connected to the tractor. Then the operator expertly selects logs by weight, length and girth and places them with giant claws, eerily resembling human hands, onto the trailer, with the larger logs on the bottom.

In 15 minutes, Morgan's truck is loaded. He then pulls forward far enough to make room for the next truck. This process continues all day long for several days, with one truck following another until all the logs are brought to the mill.

Sustainable forests

Maintaining the forests has become a primary focus of the logging industry which, after all, depends upon healthy new growth to sustain itself.

Redwoods, for instance, are among the fastest growing trees extant. The redwood trees used for homebuilding today are almost all new growth. The old image of the towering beauties being chopped down by men with axes is an old story.

Today, the selection of cutting sites for harvesting is handled with extreme care. For the most part, specific patches of forest are cut in areas, which can stand thinning without damaging the larger system. Great care is taken to protect the forest floor, its inhabitants and all the various elements that help maintain the ecosystem, including protecting streams, wildlife and even insects.

According to the Mendocino Redwood Company, owners of this forest, they "invest in improving aquatic and terrestrial wildlife habitat. For aquatics, this includes improving stream temperatures, riparian shade, removing fish barriers, and eliminating sources of upslope sediment to streams. For land-based species, this includes improving habitat diversity, nesting snags, protecting old growth features, and habitat connectivity."

In addition, the company boasts that it "invests in improving forest health including restoring conifer dominance to forestlands that have been converted to hardwoods due to poor management practices of previous owners."

MRC owns and manages 232,500 acres of timberlands in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, harvesting about 2 percent of the acreage owned on an annual basis, removing approximately 1.5 percent of the merchantable timber volume on an annual basis.

Several months prior to logging trucker Morgan Baynham's appearance on the scene with his red truck, loggers on foot called "timber fallers" have carefully selected the trees by age and size for cutting.

Giant helicopters, including the huge twin-rotor Chinooks used by the military, hovered overhead, dropping cables down to the forest floor where the felled trees, already "limbed and benched" (cleaned of branches) were hooked by "chain setters" and lifted across the deep canyon to be "decked" at the pick-up sight. There they are piled by length ready for the truckers to arrive. When weather conditions permitted when the muddy roads were hard enough the process of transporting the logs to the mill began.