Backwoods Vermont

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Slicing through the brisk winter air, the high-pitched whine of a chainsaw echoes through the snow-laden hills of Thetford State Park here. It's morning and George deNagy is back at work.

For almost seven years, Mr. deNagy has worked as an independent logger in east-central Vermont. From his shaggy hair and full beard to the baggy wool pants and size 13 boots, George deNagy fills the mold of the rugged, independent backwoodsman. To him, a day in below-freezing temperature is like a walk in the park.

''I love it - the fresh air. I'm my own boss. I can work slow some days, harder on other days.''

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Although the Green Mountain State is about 75 percent forested, timber has not become a major industry here. Of the 500 or 600 loggers in the state, 90 percent operate independently, says Orange County Forester Russell Barrett. And unlike other regions of the United States where companies control the operation from stump to store, in Vermont every step of the logging system is passed from one independent to another.

Like Mr. deNagy, most loggers here eke out a living by selling timber to local residents who use it for firewood, and to mills that make furniture or paper. The hours are long, the pay is low. But deNagy says he gets more satisfaction from this job than others that make 10 times the money.

The difference between deNagy and other loggers in the area is horsepower. While most use 300-h.p. skidders to pull the trees out of the woods, deNagy uses just two h.p. Their names are Gus and Baldy.

Gus is a Great Belgian; Baldy is three-quarters Belgian. No matter, both are huge and strong.

''And smart,'' deNagy adds.

Raised on New York's Long Island, deNagy earned his undergraduate degree from Linden State College in northern Vermont, then received his master's in biology at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. While in the PhD program (which he jokingly calls the ''post hole diggers' program''), he bought his first horse ''from money I got as a stipend.'' Next thing he knew, he had dropped the PhD program and turned to the land for his work.

Now he and his associate, Mary Leonard (a former child-care supervisor/teacher), work the land as loggers . . . the old-fashioned way.

Is it harder to work with horses than with machines?

''When you have a good day with these guys, work is very enjoyable. But when they're acting like jerks, well, the day can really be a drag. When they get hungry at the end of the day, they pull tricks on you. But it's really nice working with Gus and Baldy as a way of making a living,'' George says.

The biggest problem, says deNagy, is not in finding work. He'll always have plenty of logging jobs, thanks to cold Vermont winters and the popularity of wood stoves. But making ends meet is a week-to-week challenge.

''Somtimes it works out to where we're making only a dollar or two a hitch,'' explains deNagy. (A hitch is one load that a horse brings from the stump to the landing. Later, he will hire a trucker to bring the lumber from the landing to the mill.) When the housing industry temporarily collapsed several years back, deNagy turned to cutting mostly firewood. So did many other loggers, as well as unemployed carpenters and plumbers in the area.

George and Mary begin their day riding Gus and Baldy to heavily forested Thetford Park. (During this job, the horses are stabled at a friend's barn a mile away). Then George starts felling trees, mostly pines. Mary, with Baldy, makes a hitch of three or four trees, and the horse hauls them about 150 yards to the landing, an open area accessible from the highway by truck. Later, a hired trucker will haul the timber to a mill.

Mary hopes Baldy will follow specific routes on his way to the landing, but Baldy has other things in mind.

''Whoa, Baldy, whoa. Stop!'' Mary shouts in exasperation. ''You can't travel in a straight line. You'll hit a snag.'' She grabs the reins and leads Baldy to the landing.

''Sometimes they think they're smarter than you,'' she says later. ''Sometimes they are, but usually they're just playing games.''

An hour later, after George has dropped about a dozen trees, he and Gus join in. ''The younger horses may be stronger - but the older ones are better'' he says. ''They know how wide to swing around a stump, where the trail is, and they know the commands better.''

A major advantage to using horses in a small operation like this one is the initial cost, deNagy explains. A logger purchasing a skidder or large tractor may pay between $80,000 and $100,000 for the equipment. DeNagy says he got his horses for well under $1,500 each. But feed is expensive, as is the harness equipment and the spiked snowshoes the horses must wear in winter.

According to County Forester Barrett, deNagy has one of the best reputations for work in the area. ''Some loggers will destroy your land,'' Barrett says, ''but George takes real care in leaving the uncut trees, as well as the landscape, intact.''

Not all loggers have George deNagy's solid reputation. Barrett tells of one man's scheme:

''This old guy used to carry a thousand-dollar bill in his pocket. He would go to the house of some unsuspecting and unknowledgeable landowner and say, 'I'll give you a grand if I can cut some timber on your land.' '' Then this chainsaw-toting con man would take $20,000 to $30,000 worth of timber and the landowner could do nothing about it, he says.

It is Barrett's job to see that injustices of this sort are not the practice in Vermont. ''When a landowner comes to me, I'll usually look at the land and make some initial suggestions on how it should be logged,'' Barrett says.

It works something like this:

Landowner Stanley Brock, who has lived and hunted in the Vermont woods for more than three-quarters of a century, has 100 acres of prime woodland. Now he feels it's time to get some capital out of his land. So Mr. Brock rings up Barrett, who then spends a day on the land, systematically walking through the area, scribbling notes about the species composition, and making rough estimates on the quality of the lot and the amount of wood.

At this point, Barrett may recommend that Brock hire a private forester to mark the trees on the lot. (As a consultant, Barrett serves as a first contact with the landowner, but is not directly involved in the sale agreement.)

In this case, however, Brock says he also wants to keep the deer population on his land stable. So Barrett enlists John Buck, a wildlife habitat biologist with the Vermont Fish and Game Department, and the two, with snowshoes and note pads, set out for Brock's land.

The men can easily distinguish a red pine from a white pine from a hemlock from a cedar. And they can tell where to cut without harm to the land. ''Those trees are as valuable as they'll ever get,'' says Barrett, pointing east at an older stand of hemlocks near a stream.

''But you want to leave some hemlock in, as protection for the deer,'' Mr. Buck adds. He knows that during the winter the hemlocks are of little nutritional value to the deer, but they provide much protection.

Buck feels there is more to his job than the title implies. ''I think today I have a moral obligation to all wildlife, not just those that are hunted. So when I go out on a job like this one, I'm going to do my best to find a balance that will help all animals, not just the deer.''

Vermont has not always been as forested as it is today. In the 1800s, large tracts of forest land were cleared as farmers settled here. By 1880, Vermont was only 35 percent forested. Then the farmers began to head west in search of more fertile land or new job opportunities. Thousands of acres of crop land or pasture were abandoned, and these acres reverted to forest.

By striking a balance between development and environmental protection, state officials like Barrett and Buck hope to preserve Vermont's unspoiled landscape - and the independent life style that goes along with it.

After several hours, the two trudge back through the snow to Stanley Brock's farmhouse. The elderly landowner is waiting, seasoned eyes looking across the field as the two figures grow larger. ''There's some good timber out there,'' Barrett exclaims as they draw near.

The two go over their findings with Brock. But many decisions remain, such as whether to cut in summer, fall, or winter. (Spring, the mud season, is often avoided).

And both Barrett and Buck know of a bearded man with two friends - Gus and Baldy - who would be more than happy to do the job.

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