CHESTER, Maine — Gary Martin ended Tuesday with a smile on his face and a welcome weariness in his bones. A feller buncher operator for W.T. Gardner Logging Co. of Lincoln, Martin and his four-member crew felled about 200 cords of wood from forestland off Woodville Road near a pipeline that once ran natural gas to Loring Air Force Base, he said.
“We are on pretty good ground here. It’s nice and hard,” Martin said Tuesday. “The other crew up the road is in a bog, and the only way you are going to freeze it down in this weather is to work it, run the machine back and forth.
“It’s good now, starting to freeze up a bit,” Martin added. “We need at least a week of very cold weather to freeze it up good — zero and below during the night and 10 to 20 degrees above during the day. The lakes ain’t even froze yet.”
Martin and other logging crew members and logging company owners say the abnormally warm weather through December, with temperatures in the 30s and 40s, has left them in the mud, quite literally: Most of the woodlands they cultivate at this time of the year are still too wet and warm to handle their heavy machinery.
This leaves crews with little to no work to do at a time of year when business typically is booming.
“This season it’s slow to freeze up,” said Brian Souers, owner of Treeline Inc., a logging and trucking company also based in Lincoln. “When it’s like this, you do a lot of extra moving around trying to keep people working. Last winter it never froze up all winter, which was very unusual.”
The unusually warm weather has “really slowed things down tremendously, no question,” said Thomas Gardner, one of the principals of W.T. Gardner and Sons, a group of companies his family owns. “We haven’t had a full week of work in probably 1½ to two months. Nothing is frozen. Traditionally, right now we have frozen ground, but nothing has frozen.”
The warmer weather extends as far north as northern Penobscot County in areas such as Lincoln and Millinocket, said Michael Beardsley, executive director of Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, an association representing logging companies that harvest about 80 percent of the available wood in Maine.
“It depends on where you are,” Beardsley said.
In the eastern and southern parts of state, including Androscoggin and Cumberland counties, logging operations have “slowed quite a bit,” Beardsley said. The state’s northern and western areas, where the weather is colder or elevations greater, the ground has frozen enough to make work more achievable, he said.
“Even if we get snow on the ground, it’s still wet underneath, and the water table is still pretty high,” Beardsley said. “If it’s real wet, professional loggers are not going to operate their equipment.”
Wood yards for the state’s mills and other forest products industry manufacturers aren’t facing a shortage of wood and probably won’t for a while, Beardsley said.
Rudy Pelletier of Millinocket’s Pelletier Brothers Inc. logging company said his company’s crews have had to cherry-pick the best areas to log, sometimes finding that roads that already had frozen had thawed as temperatures spiked.
“If you try to put equipment on some of these roads, we’ll just destroy the roads and defeat what we are trying to do,” Pelletier said.
The warmer weather, combined with diesel and gasoline prices running about $1 a gallon higher than usual, pinch logging companies that have to drive longer distances to find good harvest conditions, Beardsley said.
“There is no panic out there yet,” Gardner said. “Hopefully we will get some cold weather on the backside, through March, instead of our getting it in December like we usually do.”
Loggers might see some relief over the next week, with National Weather Service forecasts predicting high temperatures of about 30 degrees and lows in the single digits. That’s not ideal, but it’s better, Beardsley said.
“Civilians like the warmer weather,” Beardsley said, “but logging companies don’t.”