Interview with Jason Rutledge of Draftwood

by November 17, 2015

There’s leaving a forest pristine and untouched and there’s clear-cutting a forest down to every last tree with heavy diesel powered logging machines. Between these extremes, there’s a sustainable forestry practice referred to as Restorative Forestry, through the use of modern horse logging.

Jason Rutledge of Floyd, Virginia is the owner/operator of Draftwood Forest Products. He and his crew begin logging the conventional way — using chainsaws. But then the sections of logs from selectively harvested trees are pulled out by draft horses along a path out of the forest. This low-impact practice of using horses instead of the large trucks and other heavy equipment typical of commercial logging is necessarily more labor-intensive — but the benefits to the forest environment are profound.

The Tueller Wall Easels handcrafted at Paper Bird Studio & Design are made exclusively from red oak and white oak supplied by Draftwood Forest Products. Jason Rutledge has graciously agreed to answer a few questions regarding the work his company is doing.

Hello Mr. Rutledge. Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about modern horse logging and Draftwood Forest Products.

Hello Mr. Tueller. You are welcome sir. These questions could be the outline for a good book, as it’s certainly a good story.

For those unfamiliar with horse logging and restorative forestry, how would you describe the work you do?

Restorative Forestry is harvesting individual trees on a “worst first” single tree selection basis. Worst first is not a random decision but a scientific and experiential informed method based upon a system we developed to identify low performing individual trees – using 18 physically visible indicators that occur in three categories of damaged, diseased and inferior. This silvicultural practice is the greatest difference between our sourcing methods and conventional forestry practices, which are either high grading or taking the best and leaving the rest or even aged management/clear cutting.

Horse logging is simply the extraction component of producing raw logs from trees. Modern horse logging is the ultimate low impact overland extraction technique. We never remove more than 30% of the individual trees or volume on any given site during a harvest rotation or a single entry into the forested ecosystem. The technical definition of Restorative Forestry is to create a condition as much like a pre-European, native, virgin forest as possible in a single entry or intervention of the natural forested ecology. This approach allows “man to age” the forest by leaving the best trees to grow as old as possible. It is based on a principle of what we leave growing is more important than what we take. The use of highly skilled directional felling and modern horse logging allow for a surgical sensitive method of harvesting that we call Restorative Forestry.

What made you interested in this line of work? How long have you been working with horses?

This work is the collective body of experiences from my life as a farmer, education as a forester and determination to be a steward of my surroundings by leaving things better than I found them. It is also a reflection of love of nature and especially animals and most especially horses. I was raised by my grandfather who was a farmer, logger and stockman and came to understand horses early in life as being reliable, honest and beautiful creatures.

I’ve owned raised and worked my own draft horses since 1974 and had Suffolk Punches, the particular breed I am dedicated since 1978. As I was quoted in the Mother Earth News once, ‘this is an old idea and it’s called Independence’. These animals allow me to take care of myself without dependence on outside input in the form of fossil fuels. They operate on solar energy in the form of hay and grain and convert that, in a self renewing way, into a power source we may use to address human needs from the natural world. That understanding and value provides a “human dignity dividend” of being able to feel good about what we do with our lives.

Why horse logging instead of mechanized logging? Benefits and limitations?

Restorative Forestry through the use worst first single tree selection and modern animal power is the best way to address human needs that I know of. The benefits are exponential in that we don’t fully understand the impact of human presence on our living planet and any activities that are serving our needs should be fully supportive of the life forces that surround us as a whole. The limitation is completely a human one. The work is dangerous, labor intensive and not as immediately financially rewarding as simply logging forest with unsustainable levels of harvesting and fossil fuel fired mechanized methods. Once we understand the human role in the living world as a responsibility of great importance to future generations there seems to be no better way.

What we leave growing is more important than what we take.

What type of wood do you harvest?

We harvest all species of wood available from the Appalachian forest type, which is the most diverse in the temperate world. We take what the forested conditions offer on the worst first basis and return to each site on a more frequent harvest rotation than a once in a lifetime cut. This approach steadily (and in a tree life timeline very quickly) improves the forested conditions by leaving the best trees as specimens, species, location and relationship to it’s cohorts.

Editor’s Note:  Within the Appalachian forest type, some common wood species are oak (red and white), hickory, ash, tulip poplar, cucumber magnolia, black locust, wild cherry, walnut, soft and hard maple and softwoods (evergreens) such as yellow pine and eastern white pine.

Draftwood was featured on the History Channel’s program, Ax Men. What was that experience like?

Well, what we experienced and learned was what we already knew – which is that reality TV is not real. The filming was wonderful because it gave an opportunity to have a group of us work together in some very challenging settings and do some amazing things like harvesting huge trees on very steep ground for a massive timber frame structure. This included using multiple hitches of horses in very rough terrain with equally extreme skills and efforts. The sad part is none of that footage was shown. All History Channel’s Ax Men wanted was fake drama and self effacing portrayals of the Ax Men as being mostly foolish. We didn’t fit that mold or image and weren’t picked up for a second season for that reason. We knew this going into the experience and agreed among ourselves that our dignity was worth more than any notoriety available from reality TV and we simply wouldn’t go along with the producers attempts to make us look bad. We are all doing this for our own sense of dignity and that is priceless and not for sale or lease.

You founded the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation. Can you describe what the foundation does?

I co-founded HHFF with neighbors and friends in 1999 in response to a Ford Foundation rural poverty grant program that was attempting to establish a collection of community based sustainable forestry programs throughout the country. We were selected from hundreds of applicants and are now one of the oldest small non profit public charities concerned with forest issues. Our mission statement is: “To address human needs for forest products while creating a nurturing coexistence between the forest and human community.” We provide public educational events, a web/internet presence and sometimes technical and financial assistance to practitioners of restorative forestry. We support training through a network of proven practitioners as mentors and board of directors approved apprentices. The proven practitioners are called Biological Woodsmen.

Draftwood is a private for profit business that was began years before HHFF. Draftwood is about establishing a source differentiated identity for forest products. Draftwood is horse logged lumber from restorative forestry. It allows the consumer to support environmental improvement with their purchasing decision. It presents the opportunity for market driven change toward what we call “Ecological Capitalism”. The way the HHFF non profit status was achieved was by acknowledging that the work was for the public good, yet no government agencies or efforts were doing the same thing. This allows us the power of competing with the government for revenue by being a tax deductible organization and donations reduce taxes paid and put a portion towards public charities that exist for the public good. We live in a great nation to have a system in place where the people can help themselves. Part of that acknowledgment was also that our methods couldn’t compete in a commodity defined market supplied by unsustainable harvest levels and fossil fuel fire mechanized methods. We had to have an idea in place that would correct this inability to compete and Draftwood is that pre-existing approach. The entire idea is for people to able to make a livable wage doing the right things in the forest. When that happens HHFF could become strictly an educational organization and could relinquish it’s non profit status. We’re not there yet.


Thanks to Courtney Odenthal for allowing me to use a number of her photos for this article.



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