Farming Magazine - March, 2014

WOODLOTS

Redstart Forestry

By J.F. Pirro


Ben Machin, a partner at Redstart, on a log landing with red pine from an intermediate thinning.
Photos courtesy of Redstart Forestry.

The way Markus Bradley "chops it up" is this: About a third of people - clients and probably the general public, too - get it and understand the necessity of managing and protecting forests to make a living and feed a family. About a third are indifferent. The other third can't handle it. Bradley is a principal with Redstart Forestry in Corinth, Vt. (http://www.redstartconsulting.com).

"I don't sugarcoat logging," he says. "I have to be realistic."

The work involves heavy equipment; it is trying and time-consuming. In the Northeast, there are only two good windows to work in: following a dry summer, August through mid-October, and then maybe two winter months, if the ground remains frozen. Otherwise, for the best and safest results, the work site has to be an exception to the rule, or the client has to have fewer expectations. "We live in a temperate rain forest and see a lot of moisture," Bradley notes.

Redstart's biggest challenge is managing the expectations and needs of its client base, 80 percent of them nonindustrial private landowners who just want what's best for their land and the environment. Selling the wood that's harvested is often a deserved bonus. Redstart clients care as much about the forest's ecology as the resulting timber.

Since 1992, the consulting company has steadily grown and now includes more than 600 clients, who own a combined 70,000 acres, most of which are in east-central Vermont, in a four-county area, within a 75-minute drive. Many are enrolled in Vermont's Use Value Appraisal Program, also known as "Current Use," an option that enables landowners who practice long-term forest management to have their enrolled land appraised for property taxes based on its value for forestry rather than its fair market (development) value.

While that program dates back to the 1970s, it only became fully funded in the mid-1990s. About half of the state's eligible property owners are enrolled. Redstart provides these clients with the forest inventory, planning and implementation services necessary to maintain compliance with the program.

"Logging can be a painful endeavor," Bradley says. "For about 30 percent of the population, the job you do, no matter how good, will never be good enough. But we're thankful that the majority of our clients' first interest is in taking care of their land, their forest, and that while money is important, it's not the only thing going on. For others, it is. The beauty of an owner in the Northeast is the pattern of diversity. It's actually a strength."

So is the diversity within Redstart. Services include forest management and assisting in land conservation, but also stream assessment, invasive species management, boundary management and wildlife habitat work. Redstart works closely with state and federal partners, including the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and others. It's part of a collaborative effort to pool the wood harvested from parcels that are Forest Stewardship Council-certified and get that wood to mills, wood brokers and local furniture makers.

Redstart helps manage the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, Vt. It's the only national park that has timber management as part of its mandate. The park boasts one of the oldest continuously managed forests in North America.

Redstart employees include two principals, four full-time employees and occasional part-time summer help. They spend the bulk of their time developing and updating forest management plans (about 100 a year) and executing some 30 timber sales a year, acting as the landowner's agent, marking the trees for removal, finding a suitable logger to conduct the work, and negotiating a contract for the sale of the wood.

"We like to say that we're the king of small," Bradley says. "We deal with a lot of people, and any one of them can call you any day of the week on any given project."

The diversity has evolved; he's a firm believer that you can't, and shouldn't, put all your eggs in the same basket. He tells loggers that they should have a plan B for the times when there isn't work during scheduled off-seasons and downtime.

His own plan B is a wholesale Christmas tree growing operation on 15 acres that he shares with a twin brother and friends. Bradley invests 100 hours a year into it and sells to four local markets.

Building Redstart

In 1998, Bradley was fresh out of school - first Paul Smith's College with an associate degree as a forest technician, then the University of Vermont with a bachelor's degree in forest management - when he connected with Redstart's founder, Virginia Barlow. Although she's retired, Barlow is still available for consultation on certain long-term community land use projects.

A longtime community icon, Barlow worked as a consulting forester with Linda Matteson in the early 1990s. When she purchased Matteson's business, she named it Redstart Forestry after the American redstart bird. She has also served on the Vermont Woodlands Association board and the steering committee for developing a 10-year plan for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. Barlow and Stephen Long founded Vermont Woodlands magazine, which became Northern Woodlands in 1999.

Bradley had been working as a forest technician on industrial forestland in New York and Maine and as a logger and private consultant in Vermont when he took a part-time position with Redstart. The job quickly became full-time after the Northeast was hit with a nasty ice storm in 1998. In 2000, he was made a partner in the business.

In 2003, Ben Machin joined Barlow and Bradley and became the third partner. Soon after, Redstart began exploring other areas of interest, including public agency consulting, public engagement, land conservation and community organizing, GIS and GPS, management of nonnative invasive species, forest health protection, botanical inventories, natural community mapping, stream assessments and green certification of forest products.

"With each new person, it allowed us to continue to diversify our lines of work," Bradley says. "We started getting our feet wet with different stuff. We have our fingers in as many places as we can. What we end up with are a lot of movable parts with a lot of people to know and a lot of people to talk with. Private sector work is a hustle. It's a grind, so thankfully the bulk of our landowners are decent, good people. A note or a Christmas card from one of them and life is good."

As for keys to success, Bradley credits Redstart's holistic approach, treating people decently and a desire to remain proactive.

An area for growth

Philosophically and practically, Redstart views forest management as a comprehensive activity. It requires an understanding and appreciation for the forest's entire ecosystem. Human actions within the forested ecosystem, including timber harvesting, wildlife habitat enhancement and recreational use, are part of the complete picture. "It's great when a client gets the full concept," Bradley says.

Redstart's interest in the management of invasive species is due to increases in these plants following logging or even natural disturbance. Managing them on a property is also part of holistic timber and wildlife management and may offer room for business growth, Bradley says. If we don't get a handle on it - and on invasive insects and fungi, other Redstart interests - our forests and habitats will suffer.

Redstart manages and treats 300 acres with invasive plant control for approximately 15 different interlopers, figures that are just "a spit in a bucket," Bradley says. "We're just making doughnut holes, but it also just feels good to get after some honeysuckle as part of the whole management strategy rather than letting it grow and not knowing what it is."

However, economics - the bottom line - often drives decisions, and invasive plants have created a new problem in managing woodlands.

Industry professionals and clients alike need to have an open mind about invasives. Knowledgeable, wealthy clients, Bradley says, will address the issue. The worst invasive populations, he notes, tend to be at the intersection of agricultural/urban expansion and forest, what he calls "fractured landscapes." In many cases, wealthier regions have the worst of it, since the spread likely originated from an estate garden.

What the future holds

Bradley would like to see a resurgence in the need and use of local wood for home construction and secondary manufacturing.

He'd also like to see logging equipment become smaller again - not necessarily back to horse-drawn operations, but just the days of making a living with smaller, lighter equipment. However, just like old-fashioned, small-scale dairy farming became next to impossible to sustain, Bradley fears the logging industry is in the process of evolving into larger and larger operations.

If there are trends - and Bradley isn't convinced there are - it's in developing markets for logged wood. "It revolves around what can be sold and what you have to do to make a living," he says.

As logging has become more mechanized, larger-scale and biomass-influenced, higher levels of production seem increasingly necessary, but Bradley doesn't think greed is the driving factor.

"What I would like is to cut and make a living, but what if you can't make it with conventional equipment?" he asks. "Again, our windows of opportunity are small, and rather than fail someone, you have to move as much wood as you can."

The equipment choices for Redstart are based on surveying the land and also on the quality of wood the job will produce. Poor-quality wood increases the likelihood that mechanized equipment will be used. All scenarios are incorporated into Redstart's initial forest management plan.

"Loggers can have niches," Bradley says. "If the only objective is money, if that's the only interest, then we have equipment that could devastate the Northeast, but within our ownership base a large percentage just wants to see the land taken care of. Most are not depending on cash and just want to do the right thing, and we try to do that to the best of our ability. I'd rather have that than be working for a sawmill or a paper factory where the bottom line is always lurking."

A typical landowner-client might net $2,000 to $10,000 from a Redstart-managed logging job. What's important following a pending resource sale is that the forest continue to produce a local resource.

"Logging and its impacts, especially short-term impacts to aesthetics, can be very painful to many landowners," Bradley says. "In a world where lumber purchased at a local store could have been harvested poorly in some other part of the world, it is important to relay the global context of each logging job. It's an exercise worth going through for most American consumers."

Though it's stressful, handling the timber sales is important. "It makes all the pain and suffering worth it to know that that wood has come locally and not from Siberia," he says.

Many of Redstart's jobs produce low-grade wood because the forest regenerated on abandoned pasture. The company's efforts on such jobs are helping to improve timber quality over time, while protecting or enhancing wildlife habitat. It also supports the local economy, providing jobs for harvesting, milling and drying wood, as well as the jobs involved in creating products from the wood. Redstart's forest management practices have been "green certified" since a 2006 third-party audit. Certification gives clients who choose to participate a way to have their harvested wood marketed as sustainable.

As for competition, it's plentiful, but Bradley says competition makes everyone better. "We're not overly competitive by nature, and occasionally we lose projects, but it works out for the best," he says. "We strive not to be the cheapest guy in town. There are no rewards for decreasing your value."

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.