Northwest NEWS

October 8, 2001

Front Page


Horse logging: back to basics

by Bronwyn Wilson
   Instead of opening her windows to the rumbling, crunching, exhaust-belching sound of a bulldozer, Judy Westall hears only the peaceful sound of Wes Gustafson and his Belgian draft horses at work in her woods.
   "The only thing you hear when the horses are working is 'haw' and 'whoa' and the jingle of the harness and the thunder of the hoofs. But they are prancing, not running in a destructive way," said Westall, mentioning that the earth shakes as the 2,000 to 2,400-pound horses work her land. "You can feel them go by," she said.
   The Westalls hired Wes Gustafson, a horse logger, to selectively cut and remove diseased trees on their wooded acreage of preserved timberland adjacent to their home. Horse logging is an environmentally friendly way to harvest trees while not damaging other trees and native habitat.
   "It's very good for selective logging," said Westall and added, "It protects the environment. You're not polluting it and you're working with nature."
   When the Douglas firs on Judy Westall's Woodinville property became infected with laminated and shoestring root rot, she could have rented a bulldozer or track hoe to remove the sick trees.
   But if she had, she would have risked excessive damage to the ecosystem on her forested land and she didn't want that. The use of horses, not heavy machinery, was the preferable option.
   As Wes Gustafson and his horses, Star, Buddy and Clyde, pull logs from the Westalls' 10-acre property, passersby stop to watch the awesome horses at work. Some snap pictures. A Snohomish County employee in his business suit stood mesmerized for a good portion of the day. Said Gustafson, "It's kind of unique, especially if you like horses, It's kind of intriguing to see horses pull logs out like that."
   People hire a horse logger because they like the gentle impact horses have on the environment.
   "Horse hooves impact to some extent, but not as much as a 50,000- pound track hoe," said Gustafson adding that a track hoe or log skidder would compact the ground around the roots much more than a horse ever could. "The repeated driving over the ground could harm the roots," he said.
   Heavy equipment will also scrape the bark off trees and open up an entrance for disease. Said Gustafson, "Horses are slower but you don't scrape bark as much. The idea of using horses is minimal damages." He cited hemlocks as an example of trees especially susceptible to disease when the bark is cut or scraped.
   Not only does Gustafson love his work, but also his hard-working, affectionate horses. "They're part of the family," he said. "Bud is my most energetic horse. When logging you want a horse with lots of desire. Bud just wants to go. He likes pulling logs. He likes it too much. The first part of the day he wears me out." But Gustafason pointed out that not every horse is suited for logging, "You want a horse with bone structure and strength."
   Gustafson and his horse team haul logs off the land using the same skid trails that were used by loggers in the '20s. Occasionally, he may have to create a new path but the width of a hiking trail only.
   In addition he'll remove many of the 50- to 60-year-old alders that are falling over on the Westall's timberland. The alders will be loaded on to a truck and taken to the Smith Street Mill in Everett, which deals exclusively with alder. "The alder is made into hardwood lumber," said Gustafson.
   Judy Westall would like others to know the benefits of horse logging. "What I would like people to know is that horse logging is still going on and they don't have to have big machinery when they want to harvest the trees," she said. "A bulldozer would take out a fourth of our woods that we're trying to save."
   She further explained, "It's an alternative energy source, providing pure organic compost, no burning of fossil fuels, no air pollution, no loud mechanical, motorized and clanging noises. It's actually very pleasant to hear the thumping, clopping, and rumbling of the hooves on the soft forest floor, the jingling of the harnesses and chains, and the voice commands of the logger to his team of horses.
   Horse logging is a way to work in nature with one of God's creatures as a teammate, it's a way to get back to basics ... simplicity."
   In place of the old and sick trees, the Westalls are planting red alder, which are resistant to the fungus that causes root rot.
   Plus, the selective removal of the trees will open up the canopy to let light in which red alders need to grow.
   According to Westall, a fungus won't spread to all trees but will only attack a certain type. "The more diverse a forest is, the better it's protected," she said.
   Westall learned of tree diseases, and ways to control them, through a 12-week course on forest management. "If people would like to learn more about how to care and manage their woods or forest, I highly recommend they enroll in the Forest Stewardship Program offered through Washington State University Cooperative Extension of King County. It was through these classes that King County Forester, Bill Loeber, was assigned to evaluate our forests and identified the infestation of root rot in our trees."
   For more information on horse logging, contact Wes Gustafson at (360) 794-4406 or e-mail:
   For information on enrolling in the next Forest Stewardship Program, contact Stephen Sax, class coordinator, at (206) 205-3132 or e-mail: