Woodcutters pine for lost art Pulpwood: Small contractors who cut forests with chain-saw precision are being felled by companies that clear-cut with machines.

February 24, 1997|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

CRUMPTON -- Pulpwood cutters Joe and Annie Clark are part of a vanishing breed -- small independent contractors who cut Eastern Shore pine trees used to make paper. No matter -- these woodchoppers are having a ball.

"People don't do this kind of work anymore," Mr. Clark says. "When I started, pulpwood was mostly guys like me -- mom-and-pop operations. Now, it's mostly loggers."

Thirty years ago, hundreds of independently contracted crews cut pulpwood on the Shore. Today, fewer than a dozen such crews still work in the woods, their number diminished over the last two decades by huge logging companies that work faster and cheaper.

The logging companies clear-cut, using huge machinery on hundreds of acres of trees. They cut the trees into 20-foot lengths of wood that are shipped by truck to the mill for chipping, pulping and making into paper.

The independents, such as the Clarks, work with a chain saw and a small forklift called a skid-steer loader. Because they cut wood into 5-foot lengths, rather than 20, they are known in the industry as "shortwood cutters."

"It used to be all 5-foot wood back in the '70s," says Bob Fitzgerald, whose Delaware Pulpwood Co. in Lincoln employs the Clarks as contractors. "At one time, I had about 60 crews that worked for me. Now it's down to less than 10."

The Clarks work on small tracts, often where the landowner wants trees thinned out rather than cleared. Such work requires a higher degree of precision than mere machinery can supply -- and the Clarks have earned a reputation for skill and efficiency among mill supervisors, foresters and landowners.

It's hard work, but the Clarks make it look easy.

On a recent cold, clear winter day in Kent County, Mr. Clark's chain saw wailed, dropping into a deeper key as it cut into a towering pine tree. Behind him, his wife deftly moved her loader into position. Her husband nodded once -- no need to look at her, they'd done this thousands of times before -- and lifted one gloved hand.

She brought the loader's forks to rest against the tree trunk and waited. He bent, the saw hit a low note again, and the tree dropped away from them. He cut it into short lengths, then stepped back. Her hands flew across the loader's multiple gearshifts, first forking the logs into a stack, then picking them up and wheeling away to drop them on a nearby truck trailer.

Five minutes, all told. Her husband was already at the next tree, and the dance began again.

They can produce 50 to 70 tons a week, says Fitzgerald, who buys the Clarks' short-wood for $12 a ton and sells it to Glatfelter Pulpwood Co. in Delmar.

The Glatfelter plant chips up the 5-foot logs, cooks the chips into pulp and sends the pulp to Pennsylvania to be made into paper -- newspaper pages, book leaves, glossy ads in a magazine.

(Chesapeake Forest Products in Chesapeake City, Va., the other large pulpwood operation on the peninsula, doesn't accept 5-foot logs anymore, Fitzgerald says.)

The Glatfelter parent company, based in Spring Grove, Pa., turns out 900 tons of paper a day. Five percent of its wood comes from shortwood cutters like the Clarks.

"We have traditionally made sure that we were able to take this wood," says Pete Alexander, supervisor at Glatfelter in Delmar. "I sometimes am not sure why we do that, unless we're just traditionalists at heart."

It's more than just tradition, says state forester Teri Batchelor. High-volume logging techniques fall short in a forest that needs to be thinned so the uncut trees can thrive. "If somebody damages the trees that are left, then you're just wasting your time," says Batchelor, who works in the Kent County office of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service. She helps private landowners manage their timber, and she recommends the Clarks regularly.

"If I come across a stand of loblolly pines that need thinning, I think of Joe and Annie," she says.

The Clarks have worked as shortwood cutters since the early 1970s. They met and married in their native Florida, and both sampled a variety of jobs before settling into pulpwood cutting.

In 1972, he decided to go back to the shortwood cutting he had learned as a young man. Two years later, he damaged his knee on the job, an injury that has left him with a slight limp. He couldn't drive the loader because he had trouble climbing in and out of it.

But he needed to work. So he taught his wife to drive it.

"It was like a bucking bronco with her at first," he recalls with a smile. "But she stuck it out, and now she's the best."

The Clarks work year-round, all over the Delmarva Peninsula -- long days that start before dawn with a commute from their Bridge-ville, Del., home and end when it rains or it's 2: 30 p.m., whichever comes first.

They won't divulge their ages -- "I'm in my 40s, sort of, and he's in his 60s," Mrs. Clark says. But they say they'll keep working as long as they can, because so few others will do this kind of work.

"After a while, there's not going to be anybody to cut these trees," Mr. Clark says, a little sadly. "The loggers won't want to do this. After us, I don't know who's going to do it."

Pub Date: 2/24/97

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