It’s Easy Being Green: Horse Power

“There are a lot of ways to look at anything,” says Jason Rutledge, president of the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation, on his blog, “Restorative Forestry.” Rutledge applies this philosophy to logging, and his way of looking at it means finding the most sustainable way to do it.

The Healing Harvest Forest Foundation doesn’t use heavy machinery. Instead, the loggers rely on animal power—horses, mules, and oxen. They’re a nonprofit in Copper Hill, VA, founded in 1999 to “address human needs for forest products while creating a nurturing coexistence between the forest and human community.”

They use a “worst-first,” single-selection cutting program, a harvest method for sustainable forestry that mimics natural disturbances such as trees falling. This means cutting weak, diseased, and unwanted trees first and leaving healthy trees to continue to grow. Removing the weakest and least desirable trees opens up the forest for other growth. Clear-cut logging, by contrast, may bring in the most money at one time for loggers, but it can erase a forest for decades. It’s been blamed for habitat destruction, ecosystem disruption, and erosion.

Rutledge explains on his blog that, “Our methods leave the biggest, best and healthy trees in the forest which stores more carbon in their large bodies and yet increases carbon sequestration by promoting some new growth to replace the lesser and declining trees that are harvested.” Adds Rutledge, “This method and group are the most ‘green’ producers in the country—maybe the planet.”

Animal-powered logging is hard work and low paying in the current market, but demand for a service that’s good for the forest is increasing. The spot compaction of animal feet is far less damaging to forest soil and tree roots than continuous tracks from machines. Animal-powered forestry also operates on solar fuel in the form of hay and grain and requires less fossil fuel than machines. What’s more, 40 percent of the harvested land base in Virginia is made up of smaller, privately owned tracts of land, and animal-powered logging is the most economical way to harvest smaller boundaries.

The Healing Harvest Forestry Foundation trains apprentices in the skills and ethics of their work. When apprentices finish training, they aren’t called foresters or loggers; they’re biological woodsmen. There are now over 50 biological woodsmen in the Mid-Atlantic region. The foundation maintains a contact list of woodsmen and acts as a referral service to landowners seeking horse loggers. Rutledge says there is a high demand for horse loggers and they have trouble meeting it.

The Foundation also sells green-certified forest products through the brand name Draftwood, including custom-designed log homes. They provide educational services to the public to promote awareness of community/forest interdependence, are included in the educational program at Virginia Tech University for modern forestry, and continue to explore methods and technology relating to low-impact harvesting of forest products. Information about restorative forestry, including private restorative forestry instruction, is available on their website.

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