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The wages of persistence, on his terms

A logger opts for the old ways, out of concern for the future

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By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / January 16, 2011

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MILAN, N.H. — This is what he has wanted all his life. It is here now, and it is just as hard as he knew it would be, and at dusk when he and the horses go back to the barn together, tired, with a few trees piled up, he feels good about himself.

Rick Alger is the last horse logger in Coos County, the only one left in northernmost New Hampshire who still pulls his trees from the forest the old-fashioned way.

He doesn’t do it to be quaint, though he’s 70 years old and says he likes “old-timey stuff.’’ He knows the image of him out there alone with the horses — “a very small man in a very large forest,’’ as he likes to say — is more than a tad romantic, and he likes that, too.

The reason he does it this way, the way they logged in the past, is because he thinks it is what is right for the future. He likes to say that all he wanted from life was to live on “terms that are acceptable to me,’’ and it is in the forest, with the horses, that he has found those terms.

He harvests maybe 20 trees on a good day, worth about $80 at the mill, and knows he will never compete financially with the big mechanized operations, knows he won’t have to get up at 5:30 every morning to feed a tractor. But there is a small magic in the horses, Alger believes, on so many levels, but the only one that really matters is how they work in the forest, which is simply and quietly.

The sun peeks in through the canopy on the land behind Alger’s house, a tract he’s been logging since 1978. A snow-globe snow falls gently. Alger looks up, studies the forest, and makes his choice. Selection is the first part of the equation.

The mechanized operations level the forest, take everything. But horses are small in the forest, allow loggers to get in and choose specific trees and take them out. And Alger, like most modern horse loggers, operates on an ethic: worst first.

Ruby and Emma, his “silent partners,’’ stand on a 4-foot-wide path Alger has carved through the forest, and watch Alger hunt for diseased trees, weed out undesirable species, and take mature trees with just a few years left in them.

He selects one, leans over, and rip-starts his chainsaw. For a few brief moments, the silence of the forest is broken as Alger slides the blade into a tree, the sawdust mixing with his hot breath against the cool air. Then silence again. Crack. Silence. Thud.

He turns the horses into position, and they slowly inch a small cart back toward the felled tree.

“Back, back,’’ Alger says gently.

“Whoa.’’

Chains are strapped around the log.

“Hup,’’ he says, and they start to pull toward a clearing, using the snow to glide the tree across the forest floor.

The scale of the operation is tiny. The scale makes it impossible to harvest much timber. The scale, to Alger, is right.

When the large-scale operators level a stand of trees, that’s it. They wait 50 or 60 years, then do it again.

Alger’s approach takes little. When the mud comes in the spring and ends his season, it’s hard to tell he was ever there.

The horses leave very little trace of their presence. They can maneuver and turn in small spaces, don’t chew up the floor like machinery, don’t damage the other trees, don’t destroy the saplings.

And because they allow for selection of the worst first, the good trees are allowed to grow stronger, which maximizes the value of the standing timber and makes the stand, in the long run, more profitable.

The long run is the key. It’s also a tough sell for both loggers and landowners. Profits on both sides are small and incremental, not the cash-in that a clear-cut can be.

But things are changing in the forest. More people own smaller parcels, and with that fragmentation has come a change in how many people value their trees.

“What we leave behind, how we treat the woods,’’ said John Plowden a horse logger in Stow, Maine, who is one of the smattering still left in New England, “is worth more than just the money the mill will give you.’’

Steven Hamburg, the Boston-based chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, also sees enduring value in the old ways. “If you’re managing the land as a purely economic resource, then it’s not very practical,’’ he said. But if you are managing for multiple benefits, anything from aesthetics to nature trails, “then horse logging might be a great opportunity to optimize those objectives.’’

Hamburg had a horse logger do a cut on the property at his weekend house in New Hampshire. He said the impact was so minor it was as if the trees were taken out by helicopter.

Alger is a man of few words. He’ll say things like “I’ve always had a strong land ethic,’’ and you can see the embarrassment coming over his face, the feeling that he’s drifting toward what he views as squishy, “green,’’ back-to-the-land rhetoric. That’s when he’ll say “blah, blah, blah.’’ He does that a lot to avoid having to say more.

It took a long, long time for Alger to get here. He grew up on a dirt road in Brockton, caught hell from his mother for being off in the woods on his own all the time, and always knew he wanted to live out there.

He met Lois at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and she had the same values — they both like the word “stewardship’’ — so they married and picked a town in New Hampshire where they could carve out a life in the Northern Forest.

The plan was he’d teach for 10 years until they could buy a farm of their own. It took 30. Twelve years ago, he was able to retire and start his work.

Alger had always logged during the summers, enjoyed cutting wood, but didn’t like what the big operations did to the forest. One summer, he worked with a horse crew and knew he’d found it, a way he could work in the forest on his terms.

The horse has been fading in logging since the end of World War II, when crawler tractors and then skidders allowed for a huge increase in harvest. Horse logging survived only as a niche, capable of logging smaller lots or more sensitive areas, such as near a water source, that were not suitable or economically feasible for the big boys.

Jason Rutledge, who runs the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation, a nonprofit group in Virginia that trains people to log with horses, says environmental awareness is changing the field. Rutledge estimates there are fewer than 15,000 horse loggers left in the country, and every one he knows has more than enough work.

“We don’t do this to be anachronistic,’’ he said. “It’s not about living in the past; it’s about taking the best of the past to make a better future.’’

In Milan, Alger is ready to call it a day. It has been an extra slow day, lots of clearing and preparation, very little actual cutting. On the ground, the horses have piled only a few dollars worth of wood.

There’s no fortune to be made in one day, he says. Logging is a trial of persistence. It is a season that matters.

“The season means a lot to me,’’ he says as Ruby and Emma tow him on a small trailer through the snow, back toward the barn. It means so much to him, on so many levels, that he says he’s embarrassed to talk about it.

“Blah, blah, blah,’’ he says again.

Then silence returns. This is when he’s most comfortable. On his way home. Feeling good about himself.

Feeling good about the horses. Living on the terms that are acceptable to him.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com.