TUPPER LAKE - Scott Lizotte pulled his iPhone out of the pocket of his flannel shirt.
"It's going to be 6 degrees tonight," he said, studying the 10-day forecast.
It's mid-March, and he's standing between a skidder and a log loader in a snowy clearing of a 12,000-acre private forest near Tupper Lake, a former lumber town.
Scott and Jeannel Lizotte of Tupper Lake pose with a pile of spruce bound for Canada on March 14 at Litchfield Park near Tupper Lake.
(Photo — Mary Thill)
The ground is deeply rutted from rain two days ago, but the return of cold has frozen it hard as blacktop. The forecast is good news for Lizotte and his logging crew, who need a frozen base of 6 inches to support the heavy feller-bunchers, skidders and trucks that cut and haul logs. Because deep cold provides a firm surface on which to move through the forest, winter is the most productive time of year for northern loggers, but winter is getting shorter.
"We used to go on the job when the ground was frozen, around the first of November, or around Thanksgiving," said Scott's father, Jeannel Lizotte. "Now it's going around Christmas time."
Added Scott: "This year it was New Year's before we got on the winter roads."
From stump to mill, some 57,000 people are employed in New York state's forest-products industry, 10 percent of them working in the woods, according to the Northern Forest Center. As much as 35 to 45 percent of the timber harvest across northern New York and New England happens in winter.
Birch, beech and hemlock
The Lizottes' clearing is at the center of a mixed stand of birch, beech and hemlock. The site is reached by a mile of gravel-hardened dirt road; when it's frozen, the corridor can handle a 100,000-pound tractor-trailer loaded with logs. The Lizottes moved their equipment out of the woods last week, before the road went soft. They pulled equipment from plots 8 miles deeper in the forest the first week of March; those stands were reached only by "winter roads," temporary routes created by earth, frost and graders.
"It used to be we'd shoot for March 15," Jeannel said, "but we got caught out too many times."
Jeannel Lizotte says he has lost about a month of productive time to warmer winter weather since he started his logging business in 1970. It's not just that winter is shorter; it's that the mud seasons before and after are longer. When there are no leaves on the trees or frost to dry out the ground, the forests are inaccessible. His observations parallel those of a Wisconsin study presented last week at the Connecticut Conference on Natural Resources.
"Frozen ground is starting later, and it's ending earlier. A trend is evident," said Chadwick Rittenhouse, an assistant research professor at University of Connecticut.
He and Adena Rissman, an assistant professor with the University of Wisconsin's department of forest and wildlife ecology, examined historical weather information from the federal government's National Climatic Data Center for seven counties in Wisconsin. They found that the counties experienced a two- to four-week reduction of frozen ground between 1949 and 2012.
The study also found that midwinter thaws are becoming more common, reducing cold-weather logging from the middle of the season.
38 days lost
"Eau Claire County is one of the most dramatic counties: 38 days of frozen ground lost since the beginning of that time series in 1949," Rittenhouse said. "That's only 60 years, and we've lost ... five weeks, almost six weeks. What does that mean for forest operations?"
Rittenhouse and Rissman compared harvest records for public lands against a variety of weather information. Something jumped out: a tie between less-predictable thaws and the type of trees cut. As winter conditions grow more variable, Wisconsin loggers are switching to jack pine and cedar, which favor sandy, well-drained soils.
"There's kind of always a mid-winter thaw, and typically it's not more than a couple of days. Well, now we have midwinter thaw part one, then we have midwinter thaw two and midwinter thaw three," Rittenhouse said. "The short story, or the analysis, is that variability in the thaw duration drives the timber harvest."
Wisconsin has less than 30,000 hectares of jack pine.
"It's not a sustainable system to keep hitting it to sustain loggers," Rittenhouse said.
One adaptation might be to put skidders on "Swamp Loggers" balloon tires to keep them from getting mired in wet sites.
"Think of the collateral damage that does to the woods," Rittenhouse said. In the Adirondacks, however, the Lizottes say most landowners would not tolerate the wider skid trail that fatter tires would require.
When ground is soft, heavy machinery on knobby tires can tear up soil and stir up silt in streams, especially at crossings. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation sometimes requires loggers to use temporary bridges instead of culverts or fords to cross protected streams, and some loggers install bridges in keeping with sustainable forestry practices.
"From a wildlife perspective, there's a potential for greater environmental impact from harvesting on wet soils," Rittenhouse said. "On private lands I think some loggers are kind of pushing the envelope."
In northern New York, though, the Lizotte crew appears to be doing everything it can to avoid getting caught in mud. They spend time and money to "short haul" winter logs to the side of a hardtop state highway so they can be picked up any time of year for transport to sawmills in Quebec or a paper mill in Glens Falls. Len Cronin, the forester managing this tract, said spruce-swamp cuts are now carefully timed for the deepest period of winter, and those jobs don't last as long as they used to, "where before we could count on 10 or 12 weeks."
Adapting to change
The Lizottes also spend more of the off-season graveling dirt roads so crews can have some assurance of work next winter.
"We're adapting to the change in winters. We got burned a couple of times," Cronin said. "The big difference with gravel road and winter road is expense." A hardened road is twice as expensive as a frozen road - about $20,000 per mile versus $10,000. All-season stream-crossing structures also require permits.
Selective timbering is both an economic and environmental strategy for maintaining the private forests that make up nearly half of the Adirondack Park, a state park larger than Vermont. Tupper Lake, with a population of 6,000, began as a logging outpost in the late 19th century. A book about the town's history is titled "Mostly Spruce and Hemlock." Today government jobs far outnumber forest-products jobs here. A half-dozen northern New York paper plants and many small sawmills have closed as manufacturing shifts to lower-cost labor markets overseas. Loss of earning time in late fall and late winter gives one more advantage to southeastern U.S. loggers, who can work year-round in faster-growing forests.
"There are global forces at play here," Rittenhouse said. "The temperate forests are losing market share anyway. When they are losing harvest opportunities as well, that kind of puts into play: What do we need to do to make this sustainable over time?"
The Lizotte crew is half the size it once was, but Tupper Lake is one of the few communities in New York state where logging remains a top-five employer. Still, during a thaw, the loggers "sit" - their term for waiting for the road to re-freeze.
Scott Lizotte, getting back into his pickup, said, "Everybody that was on a winter road didn't work yet this week."
The Daily Climate is a nonprofit news service covering climate change and is a Climate Central content partner. Mary Thill is a freelance writer who lives in Saranac Lake.