Producing Fuel Chips Integral To California Loggers Operations: CLT Logging Puts New Morbark 50-48X Whole Tree Drum Chipper to Work

CLT Logging owner Tristan Allen invested recently in a new Morbark 50/48X whole tree drum chipper purchased from Papé Machinery. He’s been pleased with the performance of the Morbark chipper and the service and support: “Morbark’s been a great partner.” The 50/48X, the third Morbark chipper Tristan has owned, is a trailer-mounted chipper with a 50-inch throat and a maximum capacity of a 28-inch diameter stem.
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MONTAGUE, California — When Tristan Allen gets ready to buy a machine for his company, CLT Logging, Inc., the service and support of the manufacturer and its dealer are integral to his decision.

“It’s all about support,” said Tristan, when it comes to buying equipment. “Anybody can blow smoke…I’m buying service whenever I buy a machine…As long as the service is there, that’s what I’m buying.”

Tristan invested recently in a new Morbark 50/48X whole tree drum chipper from Papé Machinery that CLT Logging received in July. He’s been pleased with the performance of the Morbark chipper and the service and support. “Morbark’s been a great partner,” he said.

Tristan grew up near Montague, California, less than about 20 miles to the Oregon border, where he still makes his home and has his business. The region is home for ranchers and farmers, and both his parents came from a farming background although his father’s profession was accounting. “No one in my family was ever in the wood business,” he noted. “They were all cattlemen and farmers.”

Tristan earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science from the University of California-Davis near Sacramento area and envisioned working in agriculture. He had a knack for mechanics. “I was always tinkering with machines,” he recalled, from bicycle to motorcycles. He worked odd jobs to put himself through college. “I was pretty talented at fixing stuff,” he recalled, and after graduating he wound up working as a mechanic in Sacramento for several years.

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Now 53, Tristan has been logging since 1997. He got a call from Chuck Hedin, owner of Chuck L Logging, in 1995. Tristan had grown up with Chuck’s sons and called to ask Tristan if he would be interested in working for him. Chuck had bought out CLT Logging and needed help.

Chuck’s background was in CAT and cable logging, and as the industry transitioned to mechanical harvesting and processing methods, he needed a mechanic’s help with the new logging equipment that was evolving. He figured Tristan could help him figure out the new breed of logging machines. Tristan accepted the offer to work as a mechanic, which enabled him to return to northern California.

Chuck was ultimately looking for an exit strategy, and Tristan was it. Tristan began buying some of the company’s assets in 1997 to begin trucking, and later bought assets for one logging crew and the chipping crew. By 2003 he acquired the entire business from Chuck. “It worked out pretty good,” said Tristan. In fact, one of Chuck’s sons still works for Tristan.

CLT Logging has more than 80 employees, but the core group is about 60 employees. The company now has five crews — four for logging and one for chipping — plus the trucking unit. The crews do a combined 450 loads of wood products per week.

The trucking operations include 10 log trucks, five chip trucks, and a few lowboys, a total of 18 in the fleet. In addition, the trucking operations provide work for about a dozen subcontractors. The trucking unit will haul for “anybody who’ll call,” said Tristan, but 90 percent of the hauling is for CLT Logging.

The company has two shops in Montague, one for the forestry equipment and the other for the trucks, seven bays in all, and employing three mechanics.

Tristan tries to keep a couple of crews working together if possible, but it is hard to do when some jobs are small. “We try to keep them bunched up in the same area or watershed,” he said.

Each logging crew is equipped roughly the same. Felling is done with a Komatsu or TimberPro harvester equipped with a feller buncher head. The stems are skidded either with John Deere wheel skidders or a Cat 527 dozer equipped with a grapple. At the landing, processing is accomplished with Link-Belt or John Deere track machines matched with Log Max and Waratah harvester attachments. Loading operations are handled by John Deere knuckleboom loaders.

The equipment mix is “heavy to John Deere,” acknowledged Tristan. Eighty percent of his machines are the John Deere brand. Of the nine skidders, for example, seven are John Deere machines, and the other two are Cat.

“We have a lot of spare loaders,” said Tristan. The company’s crews move frequently when working on small jobs. “We’re moving all the time,” he said, and he leaves a loader behind to load out the wood while a crew moves to the next job.

“Right now we have 200 loads of logs to put on trucks,” said Tristan. “It’s like playing a chess game, moving loaders, leaving loaders behind,” and shuffling the trucks around. He usually tries to keep no more than about 100 loads of wood ready to ship. “With all the wildfires and road closures, we got behind with hauling,” he explained.

He also has some men on the payroll to do manual felling as well as some contractors. They typically work in rough, steep terrain. “Our niche in northern California is steep ground,” said Tristan, which is why they use track machines for felling. In California, Tristan added, loggers cannot use mechanical harvesters in creek zones.

Tristan still has some old cable logging equipment, but it is used rarely. “I’m allergic to cable,” he joked.

CLT Logging supplies wood to three primary mills: Sierra Pacific Industries, Roseburg Forest Products, and Timber Products. Saw logs go to Sierra Pacific, and the other mills get peeler logs to be processed into veneer to make plywood.

Fuel chips are supplied to Roseburg and Timber Products, who use it to produce steam or hot water for their operations. Fuel chips also are supplied to a co-gen plant.

CLT contracts to those companies to harvest about 90 percent of the timber it cuts. For chipping, Tristan buys timber and markets the chipped wood to mills. He also buys some slash left behind by other logging contractors.

CLT works on private land as well as national forest land. A typical job for the company is about 300-400 acres, but they may range larger or smaller, from jobs that require a couple of years of work or as little as a month. “It depends on the volume of board feet,” noted Tristan. At the time he was interviewed for this article, two crews were harvesting timber that had been blackened in forest fires.

CLT works in a lot of white fir, Douglas fir, and Ponderosa pine. “White fir is the dominant species,” said Tristan.

The hauling distance for most wood is 50-60 miles, he said. Some hauls are as short as 20 miles, some as long as 150.

Chuck had just begun chipping operations when Tristan went to work for him years ago.

Tristan has built on that start, chipping in order to be able to clean up jobs and offer more forestry services. “So we could do everything,” he said. The company had been passed up for some jobs because they didn’t clean up and chip debris behind them. “Now we can do a full service project.”

“It looks really good when you’re done,” said Tristan, and they get a lot of small jobs from landowners who want their forest land thinned to remove cull trees. “Chipping cleans those up.”

“We buy a lot of juniper from farmers,” said Tristan. Juniper is a hardwood, very stringy with lots of limbs. “It’s only good for firewood. We started chipping a lot of that.”

The Morbark 50/48X is a trailer-mounted chipper with a 50-inch throat and a maximum capacity of a 28-inch diameter stem. “We try to kill it every day. My guys try to destroy it every day.” A John Deere knuckleboom loader is used to feed material to the chipper.

It is the third Morbark chipper Tristan has owned. He bought the first one at an auction. “It was tough as nails,” he said. “I mean, tough as nails.”

He ordered the second machine just before the economy tanked around 2008-09. It arrived two days after the economy took a nosedive. “We ran the crap out of that thing,” said Tristan. “The BCAP program with Obama saved our bacon.”

Tristan has considered other manufacturers each time he purchased a chipper and reviewed their latest technology and improvements, and he has rented machines for trials, but he “didn’t look hard,” he acknowledged — largely because of the service commitment of Morbark and Papé. He is regularly approached by various equipment suppliers because they want a “piece of this action,” he noted.

There are several features he likes about the new Morbark 50/48X, including the hydraulic clutch. “We should get more life out of it,” said Tristan, “and it should be more trouble-free” than a mechanical clutch. The chipper also has an additional feed roll.

Morbark refers to the 50/48X whole tree chipper as the largest, most productive drum chipper on the market. It has been updated to a similar design layout as Morbark’s other industrial drum chippers with a sloped infeed, reverse-pivot top feed wheel, bottom feed wheel, externally adjustable anvil and Advantage 3 drum assembly that can operate with 10-knives for fuel chip or 20-knives for micro-chip applications. It is powered by a Cat engine ranging from 1050-1200 hp.

(For more information on Morbark and its product line, visit

“Morbark’s been great to us, and it’s a great product,” said Tristan.

The chipping crew typically works with the chipper and John Deere loader, and one of the Cat dozers with a grapple on it. The loader operator tries to feed the chipper at a steady, constant rate. “We don’t like to chip air,” said Tristan. Chipping dry material, the crew can fill a 45-foot trailer van in about 25 minutes, he estimated. That translates to about 12-15 loads per day, approximately 200-250 tons.

The chipping crew does work behind CLT crews that perform thins, cleaning up and chipping sub-merchantable stems along with tops and limbs. “We’re cleaning up top piles this summer,” said Tristan.

A logging crew currently is thinning a large plantation. “They don’t want anything left in the woods,” said Tristan. “We’re making huge piles and will chip it all in about a month.”

Transportation costs are a big factor, he noted. “I get the same money for chips,” he said, whether the haul is 10 miles or 100 miles. For that reason, the crew tries to chip material that is very dry so hauling costs are lower.

The onset of the recession in 2008-09 was tough on the business, acknowledged Tristan. As the economy quickly slowed, mill production slowed, and the mills lowered their prices. “Nobody wanted any logs,” he recalled.

CLT Logging participated in the federal government’s BCAP — Biomass Crop Assistance Program — an initiative that was part of the 2008 farm bill under the Obama administration. The program provided federal funds to subsidize chipping to produce hog fuel as federal forest lands were thinned.

“I was upside down,” recalled Tristan. “I was upside down a lot. BCAP helped us a bunch.”

CLT Logging employees work four 12-hour days and one 8-hour day — 52-54 hours per week. “A lot of guys enjoy the winters off,” said Tristan. For that reason, a number of employees take off for a few months during the winter, when the company runs only three crews.

The company has a profit sharing plan, offers a 401(k) retirement plan, and pays 75 of the premium for employee group health insurance premiums.

Two CLT Logging safety coordinators visit the crews every week or two and conduct on-site safety meetings. They monitor operations for safety, respond to anonymous tips related to safety, and make spot checks to ensure compliance with safety regulations.

A member of the Associated California Loggers, the Loggers Association of Northern California, and the Forest Foundation, Tristan puts in some long hours. He works a 12-14-hour day, seven days a week, including looking at new jobs on the weekends. “It’s part of working your own business,” he said. “Keep the ball rolling.”

Tristan’s day-to-day role is overseeing the company’s diverse operations, ensuring the crews have everything they need, and interacting with customers. “I spend most of the time on the phone, figuring out where they want us, where we’re going, checking on productivity, progress, figuring out the next move. My job is basically laying out what’s coming down the pike for the five sides (crews)…moving them efficiently to the next job.”

However, he is often hauling and moving equipment with a semi-tractor and low-boy trailer as well as operating a loader or a bulldozer, too. The company is always short a few employees because of valid absenteeism, he noted.

His wife, Monet, holds down the company office in their home. She does a “phenomenal job,” said Tristan, who also has hay and cattle ranching operations — 600 head of beef cattle — on 2,000 acres.

He was quick to heap praise on the workers of CLT Logging. “The key to our success is the employees,” said Tristan. “I need to make that very, very clear…Without qualified employees and good help who care about what they do, I’d be nothing.”

“I have 60 guys who work hard for me every day. I have a great, great crew. We have really conscientious equipment operators. I reward them with new machines and good pay.”

“You can’t get to the size I am without good people,” said Tristan. “It’s my crews that make us as successful as we are, and that’s the bottom line.”

Mill prices were strong in the spring. However, with the wildfires that have struck national forests in California and preparations being made to harvest the salvage timber, prices have fallen. CLT has been harvesting scorched timber and probably will continue for the next couple of years. “There’s a lot of black wood standing there,” said Tristan.