SAWTOOTH NATIONAL FOREST, ID–The rugged natural beauty of Idaho's Sawtooth National Forest was thoroughly enjoyed by logger Steve Orton Monday.
"This sure is beautiful country," said Orton, admiring the lush foliage surrounding him in most directions. "Just smell that fresh air."
An employee of the Northwestern Logging Company, Orton was dispatched as part of a team of 350 loggers to Sawtooth last Thursday after the company outbid dozens of competitors for a lucrative government contract.
"I could never work all cooped up in an office," said Orton, placing his coffee mug on a stump grinder, a three-ton machine used to pulverize tree stumps into sawdust. "I only feel at home when I'm surrounded by nature in all her magnificent splendor."
One of the largest national forests in the U.S., the 2.1 million-acre Sawtooth boasts an astonishing variety of terrain, from wildflower-covered meadows to towering mountain peaks. With many areas only accessible by helicopter, Sawtooth is considered one of the most pristine old-growth forests in America.
"I've been a logger all my life," Orton said. "I've worked in a lot of areas, but this is definitely one of the most awe-inspiring. It was so beautiful and untouched, it was almost like we were the first people to set foot here. I know that's not true because people used to camp out here, but they cleaned up after themselves so well, you'd never know it."
Orton, a self-proclaimed "nature lover and all-around outdoorsman," reported that the first tree they felled was especially impressive.
"For some reason, we decided to start with this enormous western hemlock," said Orton, motioning to what is now a 15-foot-wide stump. "During a break, Wally [Dassle] decided to count the rings and there were 160 of them, which means that tree had been here since 1841. Just think about all the history that's happened since that tree was a sapling."
In addition to admiring the trees, Orton said he has "a real soft spot" for the local wildlife.
"You wouldn't believe how many elk we saw over there," said Orton, pointing to what is now a pockmarked, heavily eroded field. "Every morning, before we started work, one or two would come out of the trees into the clearing to say hello."
"Most days, we see animals while we're setting up camp, but after we begin we don't see them anymore," said Orton while filling the gas tank on a professional-grade chainsaw. "I keep forgetting to take a camera with me to snap some shots."
For nearly a week, Orton has been working on clearing 1,200 acres of the Sawtooth National Forest, with the lumber to be turned into 2x4s or presswood.
"This is an incredible area," said Orton, patting the bark of a Sitka Spruce. "Sometimes, when we're on break and everything's quiet, the rustling of the remaining foliage almost seems to be talking to me."
Orton said that even though he and the other loggers are working, they have set aside time for fun.
"When we first got out here, we'd fish during our lunch break," Orton said. "Russ [Keely] caught a 30-pound Steelhead, and we all got pretty excited. We haven't been able to fish the last few days, what with the logs and all, but it sure was fun while the river was still clear."
With the logging project scheduled for completion March 4, Orton is determined to enjoy his remaining time in the forest.
"Russ and I talked about seeing who can scale that huge one over there the fastest," said Orton, pointing to a 100-foot-tall spruce. "We'll have to do it soon, though, because we're taking it out right after lunch tomorrow."