Forrest Futtere’s delimber strips branches from ponderosa pine logs, cuts each one to a specified length and stacks them in neat piles.
PINE RIDGE. Those two words inspire visions of emerald ponderosa pine trees jutting skyward from rocky buttes. The description is fitting for the forested belt in the northwest corner of Nebraska. A small logging industry has sprouted to manage the resource in a state known more for long rows of green grains than it is for evergreens.
Early settlers rode horses, wagons and trains to northwest Nebraska. Forrest Futtere flew a B-1 bomber to the High Plains, but he is no drifter. After landing at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, and retiring from the military in 1994, Futtere fell for Hay Springs and moved there with his wife, Patsy. Living only minutes from the Nebraska National Forest, and with other tracts of forested land nearby, he was soon felling trees.
Futtere prefers summer heat to winter cold. Part of that comes from having spent five frostbitten days trapped in a Nebraska blizzard with no heat and only his pet cat for companionship. Not to mention that pines shatter when they hit the ground in the extremely cold. Still, Futtere trudges through last night’s dusting of snow to his Chadron State Park tree claim as dawn brightens a balmy 20-degree morning.
Nebraska’s Pine Ridge was a lot less piney 130 years ago. Wildfires kept trees in check until the 1880s, when white settlers began fighting the blazes. Historical densities of 24 trees per acre have grown to as many as 500 pines per acre in the densest stands today.
While the trees provide scenery and protect homesteads from buffeting Pine Ridge winds, too many trees growing in too small of an area can spell disaster. When carelessness or lightning from dry storms strikes, decades of accumulated pine needles, cones, branches and dead trees fuel fires much more intense than the fast-moving blazes Native Americans and early pioneers endured.
Today’s infernos burn hotter while leaving tens of thousands of acres barren. Selective harvest, removing a tree here and a tree there, the danger and improves wildlife habitat, and there are markets for the wood. No wonder Forrest is in the forest.
Futtere chainsaws 150 tons of wood per week, cutting only trees Nebraska Forest Service workers mark with blue paint. He works alone since a neighboring state sawmill threated to blackball his drivers after he undercut the company in bidding for a government timber contract. “They all left me,” Futtere said of his former employees. “This business is pretty cutthroat.” Not having anyone to watch his back adds risk to an already dangerous job.
For the rest of the story see the November/December 2018 issue of Nebraska Life.