Miller Timber Harvests Steep Slopes of Pacific Northwest: Relies on Ponsse Equipment and Synchrowinch Cable Assist System

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Located in Philomath, Oregon, Miller Timber Services is on the leading edge of new thinking and new tech in forestry.

Although he is from the more cosmopolitan area of San Francisco Bay, Matt Mattioda spent much of his time out in the woods, often camping in the forests of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and spending a lot of time with his extended family in Oregon. His love for the outdoors led him to decide that his career path lay in the woods. He followed through with that outlook, getting his bachelor’s degree in forestry management with a minor in business from Oregon State University in 1995. Looking back, Matt confessed, “When I started at OSU I couldn’t even tell you what a fir tree was.”

Prior to joining Miller Timber Services, Matt worked for Willamette Industries, now a part of Weyerhauser, in cut to length planning and silviculture. At Willamette, Matt worked with Lee Miller of Philomath, Oregon as a contractor on Willamette lands. Matt transitioned to working for Lee as head forester for Miller Timber Services in 2010. In addition to his forester duties, Matt also works in market development and sales for Miller.

Located in Philomath, Oregon, about 40 miles from the Pacific coast, Miller Timber Services, Inc. started in 1982 with humble beginnings just like most in the forestry business. Lee Miller started in nearby Siletz with a chain saw and a pickup before quickly growing, adding a dozer and additional crew.

Today Miller Timber Services is dramatically larger than it was more than three and a half decades ago, broadening their service offerings considerably. Today the company includes a sister company, L&B Reforestation. Miller Timber Services, Inc. is the logging arm and is focused on cut to length harvesting. L&B Reforestation works throughout the Pacific Northwest in tree planting and reforesation. A major service line for the company is their wildland firefighting capability. Apart from Miller Timber Services, Lee Miller also owns Koller North America, also based in Philomath. Koller North America is the North American distributor for the Austrian brand of tower yarders, carriages, and other forestry equipment.

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Miller Timber Services employs around 80 full-time forestry professionals. During summer fire season, Miller adds 120 to 140 workers to gear up for wildland firefighting. During planting season L&B Reforestation adds another 40 to 50 seasonal employees, primarily from Mexico on H2B visas, working in Oregon, southern Washington and northern Idaho. “It’s a big family,” Matt observed.

Over the last few years Miller Timber Services exited the yarder logging business in favor of cut to length. The responsibility of managing several consecutive jobs, for both yarder logging and cut to length logging that were spread over a considerable amount of geography, was the key factor in Miller’s decision to narrow their services to CTL only. “We decided we were going to focus on the cut to length side of the business.” Matt reflected on that decision, saying, “The thought is, let’s focus in on one thing and do it well.” The company has grown from the two original CTL teams in 2010 to twelve crews currently, transporting between 40 to 50 loads of timber to area mills each day.

Miller’s CTL harvesting operations are primarily contracted with private land owners ranging from northern California to Oregon to southern Washington. “It takes about six and a half to seven hours to get to the furthest CTL site from Philomath,” Matt said. Miller focuses on higher value markets with harvests going for saw logs, chip and saw logs, peeler logs, and export markets. The trees at a typical Miller job site average around 9-12 inches diameter breast height.

The Ponsse Connection

Miller Timber Services started their relationship with Ponsse in 2004 with the purchase of an Ergo harvester. This led to long running, close collaborative ties with the Finnish manufacturer of harvesters, forwarders, and related technologies. Miller is currently running 10 Ponsse harvesters including six Bears, two Ergos, and two Scorpion Kings. Miller also has a Komatsu 931 harvester. Additionally they work with a dedicated contractor that is also running Ponsse. On the forwarder side, their fleet consists of seven Buffalo Kings, one Buffalo Active Frame, and four Elephant Kings. Taking it all to market is Miller’s fleet of 15 log trucks. They cycle through their machines every four to five years.

Matt explains that Miller Timber Services has worked with several brands over the years and have experienced what other equipment makers bring to the forestry industry. That experience has made Miller appreciate what Ponsse has to offer. A key detail that leads Matt to be a Ponsse loyalist is the fact that Ponsse focuses on forestry machines only. Matt believes that factors into the innovations that Ponsse delivers and the relationships they have with their customers. Matt sums up that aspect of doing business with Ponsse by saying, “Forestry is all they do. It’s not a sidebar in their corporate portfolio. They focus their R&D money on the products that we use. That’s a really big deal for us.” He continued, “Just like us, if they don’t do well in forestry, they go out of business.”

Regarding their long running relationship with Ponsse, Matt said, “They’re a really big part of our success. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We work together for the better of both of us. They’re really good people.” Noting the Ponsse tag line of ‘A Logger’s Best Friend’ Matt expanded, “They really are. They care about the customer’s success.” The relationship between the two companies was made even easier with the recent opening of a Ponsse service center in Coburg, Oregon, 45 miles away from Miller’s home base in Philomath.

Working with as many Ponsse machines as Miller Timber Services does, Matt witnesses Ponsse’s brisk pace of product development and improvements to existing lines. “Taking delivery of the same model more than once in the course of a year, there are changes you will see between early in the year and late in the year. It’s a continuous improvement process,” Matt said. Ponsse representatives routinely meet with Miller managers to learn firsthand how their machines can be improved. “They come out with their R&D and engineering staff, they look at what we’re doing, they ask us – what works for you and what would you like to see different. What could we do to make this better, more efficient, and safe?” Matt explained. Their close relationship led to Miller testing the Ponsse H10 harvesting head prototype.

With the challenging harvests on the steep slopes of the Pacific Northwest, Miller has embraced the expanded capabilities offered by the Ponsse Synchrowinch cable assist system. Three of Miller’s Bear harvesters and four of their Elephant King forwarders are outfitted with Ponsse’s tethered system. The winch is manufactured by Herzog Forsttechnik AG of Switzerland exclusively for Ponsse. Miller Timber Services was the first company in North America to utilize tethered systems for cut to length logging.

Matt’s initial experience with cable assist capabilities was in 2015 in Brazil where he watched 22 Syncrowinch outfitted Ponsse machines working in a eucalyptus plantation. At that point Miller already had a Syncrowinch Ponsse on order and wanted to observe it in action. Matt explained, “We started out with them because we wanted to access steeper ground that was previously considered inoperable for ground based equipment.” According to Lee Miller, with the cable assist, the machines can now operate on 80% slopes, compared to 60% slopes in the past. The new capabilities offered by cable assist systems coincided with Miller’s exit of yarder logging

Safety, lower forest floor impact, and fuel efficiency are the primary benefits of cable assist systems. However, Matt noted, “What we found out unexpectedly in this process is that it’s been very helpful even in flatter ground in wet weather conditions. It’s helping us to reduce impact.” For the Miller crews, the Synchrowinch opens up terrain that in the past would give their crews pause before proceeding. “It gives the operator the confidence he needs to access ground that previously he would be hesitant to do,” Matt explained.

Herzog, the manufacturer of the Synchrowinch, sent one of their trainers to work with Miller’s staff trainer to bring operators up to speed on how to safely and effectively use the new system. As Matt puts it, part of the process of gaining increased confidence in difficult terrain and, with respect to caution, “is to know where to say when.” He continued, “If you’re doing ground based logging you have more options on how to go about something. When you’re on steep ground you have to have a plan, how you’re going to go about harvesting that unit.”

The Synchrowinch approach to tethered logging does not require a second machine to handle the cable reel. This gives the logger greater flexibility in approaching a slope. “You may go part way down a hill before you decide to tether. The advantage of this system is that you don’t have to have that second machine, and you can tether anywhere you decide you need it,” Matt explained.

Miller Timber Services takes pride in being on the leading edge of new thinking and new tech in forestry. Matt said, “We eat up and dig cutting edge technology in our company.” Matt is in the process of integrating remote productivity and fleet management systems utilizing Ponsse technologies. With a significant number of crew members and a wide range of equipment, not only in the harvesting side but also on the firefighting and reforestation side, Matt explained, “It’s big enough that you can’t keep track of everything unless you use technology to do that.” Miller Timber Services will be employing new systems to track all the necessary data for effective management of crews and equipment alike. “Fleet management is a huge deal,” Matt said.

Matt projects a very positive outlook for the future of Miller Timber Services. “We are a company of foresters with tools. Most of what we do is going to be stand improvement. The stand we leave behind is better than the stand we started with. What we leave behind is our legacy. Because we’re foresters we approach things from a forester’s point of view, a silviculture point of view. Growing healthy forests for long term societal benefit and having a long term viable industry is what we’re about. We’re in it for the long term.”

Looking to the future and the shift away from yarder logging in the Pacific Northwest, Matt predicts, “Mechanization on the slope is going to happen. There’s a huge push to get boots off the ground. There’s a tremendous push from a safety and productivity standpoint.”

Regarding their relationship with Ponsse and other companies that they do business with, Matt said, “We value our relationships with Ponsse and other suppliers as well as the people we work for. Long term positive relationships, everybody has to win or it falls apart.”