Wisconsin Loggers Benefit from Mechanizing

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All-Ponsse-Equipped C-T-L Company Adds Newest Harvester with Powerful, Fuel Efficient Mercedes-Benz Engine

WESTBORO, Wisconsin — Each of the three co-owners of Wiitala Vozka Logging brought years of experience to the company they formed in late 1994. Brothers “Smokey” (Ardin) Wiitala and Ron Wiitala had been working together since 1983, using a hand-felling and skidder approach to logging. Mark Vozka often met them on an intersecting job, but he worked independently.

When the three men joined forces to launch a new company, they decided to make the transition to a fully mechanized, cut-to-length operation. Smokey explained he and Ron alone “used to run with a 13 to 15 man crew.” But each person employed added to insurance costs as well as labor costs, and mechanization began to look attractive.

The three partners opted to eliminate chain saws, except under extraordinary circumstances, for many reasons. “Workers compensation was a big issue for us,” said Smokey. “(We had another) big issue with manpower.” Just finding and retaining loggers could be difficult.

Environmental concerns influenced the conversion, too. Mechanization is “better for the environment” and “not so visually obvious,” said Smokey. Skidders moving through the woods, coupled with the noise of chain saws, can attract passersby — onlookers who generally fail to understand the importance and value of forestry operations.

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“I’d rather have people see us (doing cut-to-length logging) and understand what’s going on,” said Smokey. In fact, when people stop to observe the Wiitala Vozka enterprise, Smokey pauses to take time to talk with them and explain what is going on and why.

Switching to a cut-to-length harvesting system enabled the partners to reduce the size of their workforce. The company has nine employees, including the three co-owners.

Wiitala Vozka Logging runs all Ponsse equipment. The most recent addition, a 2001 Ponsse Ergo 2001 harvester, was delivered in April.

When Wiitala Vozka Logging set out to add a new harvester, it evaluated harvesters and feller-bunchers from many manufacturers. “We looked at a lot of other equipment,” said Smokey. “Every time, we went back to the (Ponsse’s) computer system, (the fact that it) limbed well, was maneuverable, really easy on fuel.”

Ultimately, the Ergo harvester, which is part of Ponsse’s 2001 product line, won the favor of the principals at the company. “We’re high-tech. We love new stuff,” said Smokey. The sentiment is a match for the Ponsse Ergo, which utilizes a computer system that offers precision cutting to 1 millimeter.

“The Opti computer system (with Microsoft Windows) does everything but make coffee,” said Smokey — it might do that in a few years, he added with a laugh. Yet it was more than the sophisticated technology that persuaded the partners to invest in the Ponsse machine.

“It’s got a Mercedes-Benz engine in it,” noted Smokey, and is very fuel efficient. Even producing 240 to 250 horsepower, fuel consumption is about the same as about 20% less horsepower, he said.

Besides being powerful yet fuel efficient, the Mercedes-Benz diesel engine is hardly noticeable in terms of noise. “They’re really quiet,” said Smokey. He can carry on a conversation in a normal tone of voice with someone standing right next to the Ergo, he said, and they can hear each other perfectly.

The Ergo model name comes from the word ergonomics, and it reflects Ponsse’s commitment to designing and building a machine that is adapted to the worker and his surroundings. Ergo is a standard bearer in the Ponsse line although the harvester has undergone some big changes for the new millennium.

For example, the Opti (for optimal) computerized control system Smokey likes so much links the drive transmission, the boom, and the harvester’s control system. Because the measuring device is also wired into the same system, integration of driver activity and cutting is particularly smooth. The computer system extrapolates the taper of the tree to arrive at the cuts that will produce the optimum number of logs. It also ties into a GPS (global positioning satellite) system so that the operator can pinpoint his position in a tract and avoid moving out of the job site.

The new Ergo joins a line-up of other all-Ponsse equipment at the logging company. Wiitala Vozka Logging is equipped with three harvesters, two HS15 Ergo models and one HS10 Cobra model, and three forwarders, an 8-wheel Buffalo, and 8-wheel Caribou and a 6-wheel Bison.

Smokey operates the older Ergo harvester and his brother, Larry, runs the Cobra harvester. Ron’s duties include timber cruising and running parts. Mark runs the new Ergo harvester.

The company does all its own service maintenance, and Smokey said Mark makes that possible. “Mark is a very, very knowledgeable mechanic,” said Smokey, and Ron also has extensive mechanical know-how.

Ponsse delivers parts quickly. The speed tells Smokey the manufacturer understands that loggers must minimize down time.

The company works 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week, nearly 12 months a year. There is an occasional Saturday. The nine men sort out the duties and take satisfaction in their jobs.

Wet spring conditions sometimes force a halt to production that may last up to four weeks, although Smokey does not like to be down more than two weeks in the spring. The company, based in Westboro in north-central Wisconsin, works mostly in northern Wisconsin and also does some work in Michigan and in Minnesota.

Fifty to 75% of the company’s production is in pine. The remaining work is in aspen and hardwoods. Wiitala Vozka Logging supplies wood to paper and pulp mills, such as Stora Enso and Georgia Pacific, and sawmills. The company bids on jobs for all levels of government, county, state and federal, as well as timber offered by private owners and consulting foresters.

A native of Wisconsin, Smokey is a third-generation logger; his grandfather and father both worked in the woods. Committed to the profession of logging, as well as to helping those outside the industry understand its significance in the economy, Smokey is an active member of the Wisconsin Professional Loggers Association (WPLA). Right now, the WPLA is working to reduce costs of workers compensation insurance premiums and to persuade state legislators that heavier weight limits are in order for log trucks. He is working on certification as a Master Logger. And he and others at the company are certified in First Aid. The company has SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative) certification and BMP (Best Management Practices) certification.

The company participates in Log-A-Load, the fundraiser for Children’s Hospitals, and it welcomes Trees for Tomorrow to its sites to observe and learn from its practices. Smokey believes people must understand more about logging and forestry in order for there to be public support for roads in national forests. Many people do not make the connection between their lives and wood products for housing, paper and more. So he is happy to have the opportunity to answer questions and to explain some of the principles of forestry.

Wiitala Vozka Logging contracts out all hauling. It has three regular truckers and uses others as needed. Most mills are within 120 miles of a logging site, but some trips go to 150 miles.

Production varies with the type of job and time of year, but on average the company will send out about 50 loads of wood per week. The four Ponsse harvesters collectively can harvest about 700 cords per week. On some jobs the company harvests tree-length wood, often for utility poles.

The Ponsse machines are tough and agile, and they can easily handle big diameter trees and limbs. The company rarely uses a chain saw. “In five and one-half or six years, maybe we’ve cut three or four cords with a chain saw,” said Smokey, who keeps Husqvarna saws on hand for when they are needed.

Logging is a business — “We do it to make money,” said Smokey — but Smokey enjoys being outdoors. “I can’t stand the hustle and bustle of town,” he said.

When he was a little boy, his grandmother called him ‘Smokey the Bear.’ The nick-name stuck.

Smokey enjoys hunting and fishing. In fact, he and his wife, Nancy, started another business venture about four years ago with direct ties to hunting. Their company, D West Whitetail, raises deer for breeding and hunting preserves. Nancy also does the bookkeeping for Wiitala Vozka Logging.

Last year a storm blew down about 12 million cords of wood on national forest land. Instead of salvaging the timber, however, the Forest Service set up an experiment — studying how the dead wood degrades. Smokey called it a “waste of a valuable resource.” Scientists and foresters already know that dead trees will rot and that new trees will regenerate.

More than one-third of Taylor County is part of the Chequamegon National Forest, and there are large tracts of land held by the federal government in the Badger State. So issues impacting logging on national forests get Smokey’s attention.

Smokey has some of his own ideas about improving the management of national forest lands. For example, he favors more re-seeding. Not all species naturally regenerate with equal vigor, and those that need a little boost — like Scotch pine — should get one. In recent years, because of budget limits, reseeding efforts have been reduced dramatically.