TUPPER LAKE, N.Y. – Scott Lizotte was hopeful as he pulled his iPhone out of the breast pocket of his flannel shirt. "It's going to be six 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 in New York's Adirondack Mountains.
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 six 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. 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 estimate they have until the end of this week to get their gear out of the woods before this road goes soft. They've already pulled equipment from plots 10 miles deeper in the forest; 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. 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."