Thursday, June 30, 2022

New sawyers cut it up

by Margaret E. Davis
| June 19, 2022 12:00 AM

When our dad suspected my brother and me of late-night carousing, he’d wake us up early to go get firewood.

After the bumpy drive to a forest outside Helena, we spent the morning, usually hot and dusty and with a chain saw as the soundtrack, gathering up wood and filling the truck.

Fast-forward some decades and Women in the Woods announced a course at Lone Pine State Park. Among other things, the class made the case for chain saws as tools for forest health as well as for firewood. It also looked kind of fun.

We students —from all over western Montana and as far away as the Bronx — first met by Zoom. Most had little experience with chain saws, and the reasons for joining ran from practicality (“I’ve got plenty of downed trees”) to self-sufficiency (“I don’t have a man”), to phobia (“I’m very afraid of chain saws”).

The instructors took it all in stride, including Ashley Juran of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and chain saw maven Amy Freund, who fell into the calling when she wanted to join the Montana Conservation Corps in 2010 and the only openings were on a chain saw crew.

Two days later, we stood among the trees suited up in personal protective equipment of chaps, helmets, ear protection and gloves. Some of our chaps showed the folds from rush shipping. The May morning was overcast and windless. Freund said with a grin, “I’m really happy to be cutting today.”

We learned the safety features of our saws, and all about elemental “leans and binds.” We heard how to avoid kickback and a pinched bar, then started up our saws. The whirr sounded good!

We tackled the deadfall around us, often discussing binds, compression and tension first. Our kerfs were not as perfect as our enthusiasm; still, my dad would have approved.

One student who manages hundreds of acres talked about her urge to clean up all tree debris. Retired forester Betty Kuropat cautioned against this, and said to leave spaces for wildlife. “Messy is good,” she said. “Messy is the natural world.” Same with snags that, if not a hazard, should be left to provide habitat for birds.

On breaks inside we kept learning.

State service forester Holly McKenzie talked about the larger industry: It takes about an acre of forest to fill a truck with 5,000 board feet of lumber. A mill might pay $400 per thousand board feet. About three and a half truckloads of logs can build a home.

When trees have to compete for water and light, they can’t grow big enough to render usable lumber. Forest thinning has other advantages. Gaps between trees “force fire to the ground,” McKenzie said. “When fire is in the crowns there’s not much you can do.”

Her colleague Ali Ulwelling picked up the thread in a talk on designing fire-resistant landscape around dwellings, noting that California’s Paradise fire covered an area the size of a football field every second.

In our final forest session of the day we sawyers elected for more bucking, felling or in-depth saw safety and care. The felling instructor, Elle Hollingsworth, demonstrated the feat, then turned to us and said, “Go cut some trees!”

Audience development director Margaret E. Davis can be reached at 406-758-4436 or

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