Just off Farm to Market Road near Whitefish, Tai Foley and his three-man crew operated a handful of small machines stacking logs, clearing underbrush and scattering woodchips on a 1.5-acre section of private property.
Foley’s company, Safe Lands Forestry, specializes in small-scale fuels reduction and forest thinning work, essentially taking timberland-sized ideas about sustainable forestry and fire prevention and specifying them to fit the needs of individual property owners.
“First and foremost is wildfire prevention and cleaning up the land so if fire were to come through here, the property would be OK,” Foley said. “This particular project is a little different — it’s not just the thinning and fuels reduction — and there’s a logging component to it as well.”
Safe Lands Forestry (SFL) provides a niche service, straddling the line between an urban tree service or arborist and large timber companies that focus on logging.
“We’ve geared ourselves towards being able to take merchantable timber out, so we’re not just thinning a property, because there’s a lot of ways to handle a forest,” Foley said. “When I started out, I found that there’s a market for these urban interfaces that have more material than a tree service can handle, but you’re never going to get a lumber company in here.”
At the Farm to Market property, piles of logs line the drive, which will eventually be sent to Weyerhauser for both pulp and saw logs.
Foley catered his company for this hybrid work, including a very specific fleet of smaller logging equipment, such as a Vimek Forwarder, which is the only one in the Western U.S. The smaller machinery is what allows SLF to navigate within the confines of a forest without needing to remove more vegetation or canopy just to fit. None of SLF’s equipment weighs more than 14,000 pounds and is almost entirely sourced from Europe, (a new grapple is currently on a ship en route from Sweden), where Foley says they’ve really figured out small-scale forestry and machinery.
Foley is a former hotshot and worked for a number of years as a contract firefighter before he founded SFL.
“I was struggling with being able to go to these really beautiful places like we have here, and then when we leave two weeks later, it’s just black,” he said. “Once I left, I started this company thinking there was a market there.”
Foley says there were people in the forestry industry who laughed at him, but his hunch about the niche work proved accurate. In the last five years, he says his work has “exploded,” and has shifted from just being seasonal to year-round, averaging more than 100 acres of work a year.
“It’s 50 percent education,” Foley said “At the beginning it was more of just aesthetic — people wanted dead trees cleaned up — but I’d go in and educate them using my background in fire. I’d show people what I saw when homes burned and then combine that with the visual side to make it kind of like a forested park.”
Foley approaches his jobs with a three-pronged mentality, a triangle of intentions. The three sides are made up of wildfire prevention, aesthetics and environmental and wildlife factors.
When he starts consulting with a landowner on a new project, he asks what their true intention for the area is.
“Usually they respond, ‘Well, I don’t want my home to burn in a wildfire, but I don’t want to see my neighbor or hear the road, and I really like the rabbits and the deer,’” Foley said. “So I look at my triangle and we try to identify what it is you’re really looking for.”
On the fire side, that means analyzing ladder fuels, examining the canopy density, assessing dead trees and ground cover and removing it from the equation. On the aesthetic side, forested property can serve as a buffer to other homeowners and roads, or involve specific trees a property owner likes.
“Then on the environmental wildlife side of things, if you want rabbits around you need to have cover. If you want birds, they love snags, things like that,” Foley said.
“It might not play into the wildfire side of things but it’s important to the owners,” he added. “Once we identify all those pieces, we’ve got your personal forest.”
Foley thinks the customized bespoke forestry method will continue to rise in popularity as more people move to inhabit the urban-forest interface and wildfire seasons continue to set records and make headlines.
“The forest isn’t going anywhere, but our homes can go somewhere, that’s for sure,” Foley said. “Fire is not going to wait for us. We either get these jobs done as quickly as we can, or eventually fire will come through. The more we can do, the better off everybody’s going to be.”
For any homeowners living in an urban-forest interface, Foley recommends some basic fire prevention measures, including:
- Clear the first 30 feet away from a home
- Keep bushy shrubs away from a house
- Limb trees often and remove all dead trees
- Keep clean areas where embers are likely to blow — the same areas where leaves and snow build up
To learn more, visit safelandsforestry.com
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