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Logger uses horses to drag felled trees
Timberman says it's the best way to transport logs and make the least impact on Michigan's forests

Jack Storey / Associated Press

Logger Dave Esslin says that using horses to drag logs out of the forest is better for the environment. "It bothers me to run over a lot of little trees," he says.


By Associated Press

    STALWART -- Most loggers stopped using draft horses to pull felled trees from the forest after mechanical "skidders" were invented a half-century ago.
   But Dave Esslin prefers the old way. He's one of a handful of timbermen who still use a well-trained team of horses to drag mostly hardwood logs from woodlots around the state.
   It's the best way to transport timber with the least impact on the land, says Esslin, 46.
   "It bothers me to run over a lot of little trees," he told the Evening News of Sault Ste. Marie for a recent story.
   Strolling through 40 acres of mixed hardwoods 70-100 feet high near Pickford in the eastern Upper Peninsula, Esslin said his team of champion matched Belgians get the logs out without damaging the generation of trees coming up.
   Saplings that are bent beneath logs pulled by plodding horses spring back in time to eventually replace trees cut for hardwood lumber and veneers, he said.
   Esslin doesn't claim to be a conservationist, but advocates sound forest management.
   Owners who let a hardwood stand go uncut too long risk having a forest of skinny trees with little "harvestable" timber, he said. The alternative is to selectively cut larger, marketable trees sooner, opening up holes in the canopy for sunlight to bring up younger trees.
   "This should have been cut 10 years ago," he said, walking under a high canopy of hardwoods. "That way the young trees can get to the sunlight."
   Esslin says his belief in selective cutting is largely lost on private owners who harvest their timber for cash. "There are some people who do care; they're mostly older people. But in most cases, it's the almighty dollar," he said.
   He selectively cuts hardwoods 16 inches in diameter and up in the eastern Upper Peninsula and the Lower Peninsula. He said a small but growing group of timbermen in the state still uses draft horses in the woods.
   Not entirely a purist, Esslin uses his team to skid logs to a trail or logging road. From there, he uses a diesel skidder to stack and later help load the timber for market.
   Although he occasionally must cut a narrow road into a woodlot, Esslin said he tries to use existing roads and trails to minimize the impact on the land.
   A logger three seasons of the year, Esslin said there is still enough money in it to take summers off for his other avocation -- horse-pulling.
   His Belgian team is reigning state champion in the 3,300-pound weight class after recent competition at Lake Odessa. It doesn't hurt the horses' training to be hauling felled hardwood logs in the woods three seasons of the year, he said.
   "The horses like it," Esslin said.
   A certified auto mechanic by trade, Esslin owns a transmission shop but prefers his horses and the forest.
   "It's better in the woods. I'd rather not deal with the people (in the shop). And horses don't talk back," he said with a wink.
   Working at a pace from earlier days, he said 100 acres or so of timber each year is enough. Usually he logs a few smaller parcels of 40 to 80 acres at a time, splitting the proceeds with the landowner on a set percentage.
   It's not always easy to compete with big-time timber cutters, he said, noting that cash offered up front on the timber in a parcel is often more convincing than 60 percent later.
   "It's more a hobby with me but you can make a decent living," he said.

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