Navy horse power gets wood out
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:32 PM
"Tony and Rocky are efficient, environmentally friendly and will pull thousand-pound logs all day long for a few pounds of grain.And that's what the two Percheron horses were doing in Oak Harbor for a few days last week. For the Navy. The horses were on Whidbey to resolve a potentially dangerous situation. About 80 alder trees had been leaning over Forest Drive at Whidbey Naval Air Station's Capehart Housing. Base officials feared Whidbey's regular winds would eventually blow the six-story-high alders down across the heavily trafficked road. Problem was, the area is thick with undergrowth and young trees that provide shelter and food to several species of insects, birds and animals, as well as a scenic corridor for traffic into and out of the base housing development. So how to remove 80 of those trees without damaging the woods in the process? The solution, said NAS Whidbey environmental affairs officer Matt Klope, was to call Tom and Brenda Pehrson, owners of Pehrson's Horse Logging based in Poulsbo. If using horse power - in the most literal sense - seems kind of retro for a techno-savvy Navy, then consider the mechanized alternatives, Klope said. Mechanized logging machines, as in bulldozers, tractors and big-wheeled skidders, leave a lot of residual damage in their wake.And even though Tony and Rocky are big enough to provide significant shade on a sunny day, they are remarkably low impact. And unlike machines, they're able to move hundreds of tons of trees while barely leaving a trace of their efforts behind. On the other hand, Klope said, dozers and tractors would likely have left an ugly swath through the woods, scraped and gouged other trees and destroyed undergrowth, like salal and other plants and bushes that offer food and shelter for insects, birds and animals. Moreover, Klope said, mechanized logging can cause erosion and runoff, environmental damage the base is charged with preventing in accordance with the Federal Clean Water Act. The reason we like horses is that a tractor would have done damage to the road edge and the woods - even a little Cat would have torn up the woods, Klope said, while standing by the two animals last week. And these guys have no impact, all they do is fertilize. NAS Whidbey isn't the only northwest Navy base to bid for the Pehrson's services.Walter Briggs, the Navy's regional forester for a nine-state area said the Pehrsons have often been called upon to harvest and thin trees at various Northwest Navy installations.Tom has worked for us over the last 15 years, clearing the land in places like the Naval Magazine (at) Indian Island, NAS Whidbey and NSB (Naval Submarine Base) Bangor, Briggs said. It's (horse logging) much quieter, safer and doesn't tear up the ground like a machine would.Briggs said logging with horses is also more cost effective, like when the Navy recently needed to clear a small forested area at Bangor. To move in a machine and the truck and trailer to haul it in and out, could have cost $200 each ways, he said. With Tom, there was lower overhead, lower move-in and move-out cost than machine logging, and he didn't tear up the ground.The stealth benefits of horse logging was apparent as the Pehrson's worked their animals last week. While hauling logs that would have crushed a compact car, Tony and Rocky were as quiet as they are big. And they are very big.Standing 17 hands high at the shoulder - 5-feet 8-inches - and weighing about 2,000 pounds each, the gentle giants waited silently as Tom and Brenda Pehrson used a chainsaw to buck, or cut, branches from alders they had fallen earlier, then cut the logs into 20- to 30-foot lengths.After that was done, Pehrson hooked a chain choker running back from the horses' harnesses, to one of the logs.Haw, Pehrson said softly. The horses lunched forward and yanked - yarded in logging parlance - a 20-foot log into motion.Using quiet, one-word commands, like Gee, and Haw, Pehrson guided the horses and tree section left, then right, stopping them when the logs were clear of the forest and along the roadside.Pehrson said he started logging with horses 20 years ago in Northern California.At first, he worked with convential logging equipment, heavy, big-wheeled tractor-like skidders, that noisily dragged logs out of the woods.But Pehrson said he tired of the noise and constant maintenance that came with using skidders.I hated working on them, he said. I'd drive them all week and then work on them all weekend.When a friend suggested he switch over to using horses, Pehrson thought he was kidding at first. But then he tried it. Now he wouldn't log any other way. Besides working for the Navy, Pehrson says he also gets a lot of jobs from homeowners who want to clear trees from their yards without the noise and residual damage caused by heavy equipment.Other than feeding them well, brushing them and seeing to their shoes and harnesses, Pehrson said Tony and Rocky are remarkably low maintenance.But you do have to care for them, he said. You have to watch them for signs of fatigue and pace them by alternating heavy logs with lighter ones, cooling them down before giving them water, brushing them down after work, feeding them good-quality alfalfa and grain, and using a gentle hand and a soft voice.Do that, he said, and the horses will never break down, never complain and work all day long without making any noise or leaving a trace of their labors behind. Except maybe some fertilizer."