Sustainable Appalachia: The Healing Harvest Forest Foundation

Jason Rutledge uses horse-powered forestry and ecosystem science "to address human needs for forest products while creating a nurturing coexistence between the forest and the human community." Photo courtesy of the Roanoke Times

According to the USDA, there are more horses in the American countryside now than ever before. Yet most of those horses are for leisure use and not utility.

Over the past decade, I and growing network of practitioners across Appalachia have chosen to live with horses in a utilitarian way. We are using horse power to practice what we call “restorative forestry.” The choice is not about nostalgia or wanting to go back to the past, but comes from deep concern for the future of all life on our planet.

At the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation, we promote an approach to forestry that values all life as precious enough to protect. It is the best forestry we know and expresses an honest recognition of the role humans play in the big picture. We do our work humbly, and we see the whole forest. As we evolve and learn more about the environment, we continue to see the value of being sensitive to the forest ecosystem. We imitate nature by taking the worst individual trees first—those with cracks, dead limbs, and scars—and leaving the forest intact. It’s not “sexy.” It’s labor intensive and often dangerous, but it’s the right thing to do.

As word grew about our practices, we were overwhelmed by demand for the services of modern horse loggers. We started Healing Harvest as a formal response. Every year, we train new apprentices in the skills and ethics of our work. We raise donations to supply apprentices with horses, log loaders, chainsaws, personal protective gear, harnesses, collars, and computers. We also use modern chainsaw safety and skills techniques developed in Europe. Our horses are all draft breeds, but we have many Suffolks, a rare breed that is nearly extinct. When our apprentices finish training, we don’t call them foresters or loggers, but “biological woodsmen,” a different kind of vocation that works with the whole forest. Now there are over fifty biological woodsmen throughout the Midatlantic. We maintain a contact list and act as a referral service to landowners seeking horse loggers. And there are still not enough of us to address the demand for our restorative forestry.

We contend that what is good for the environment and ecology is also good for the economy. Over the long term our active forestry will make the most money for the landowners while protecting the ecosystem. Our local industry has challenged us to prove that “green” means something in the market place. We sell “green certified” forest products through the brand name Draftwood, and are now selling timber for log homes. We also supply beams for timber frame companies and are working on regular structural lumber for conventional buildings. But currently our economic system doesn’t value the ecological services forests provide, like protecting our soils and water and storing carbon that would otherwise contribute to global warming. We must change the economic system to include all the costs of meeting our life needs.

There is a place for working horses in the modern world. As we learn more about the value of ecosystem services, there will continue to be a beneficial place for them in the future.

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