Both skiers and snowboarders like their trees delicately covered in snow, creating picturesque backdrops that flank pristine ski runs. Indeed, one of the goals of winter sports is to generally avoid meeting those pines face-to-face on the slopes. For that reason, “ski bums” in Big Sky, Montana, should tip their beanies and offer a mittened salute to a man they won’t likely meet on the slopes: Justin Miller.
CLEARING BIG SKY
Miller is the owner of Big Sky Land Management (BSLM), a forestry and excavation service company in Big Sky. BSLM does everything from fuel reduction and fire safety to lot clearing for development—and of course, clearing for the ski resorts in town.
Miller knows the slopes at the various resorts around Big Sky better than many of the skiers; he’s been helping clear them since he started BSLM in 2005. He started with a chainsaw, but when he saw a Fecon Bull Hog™ mulching head on a project, he was so impressed by the quality of the product and its efficiency that he bought one for BSLM.
DREAM TEAM CREATED
Fast forward 10 years, and he’s still clearing and mulching with that same Fecon BH40 attachment. Currently, it’s attached to a 2015 CAT 320 ELRR, creating a dream team combo that’s tough enough to stand up to steep terrain and long work hours.
With a severe duty build and reinforced side walls, the Fecon Bull Hog was built to stand up to the toughest jobsites, like Miller’s remote ski slope work. A variable displacement motor optimizes Miller’s rotor speed and torque for maximum production, no matter the size of the tree he’s mulching.
Miller uses an HDT head, which features low profile rotor bars, stronger tool holder design and a staggered tool pattern to provide superior mulching performance. The HDT head excels in stringy vegetation and in situations where working the material into soil is necessary for long term stability. In Montana, working the material into the soil creates a sturdy bed ready to be topped with a blanket of snow, rather than washing away when the snow comes.
While the BH40 could be undersized for the 320, and the CAT could handle the larger BH80, Miller finds the balance perfectly tuned. The BH40 puts less weight on the end of the machine at full extension, creating a greater sense of safety on the 35-degree grades Miller regularly finds himself on.
PRIVATE SKI RESORT
Recently, Miller was involved in a project 5 years in the making: a new private ski resort was opening in Big Sky. The 2,000-acre plot was ready for runs to be carved through it, and Miller was tasked with clearing the way. The project was broken down into five phases, with 400 to 500 acres of clearing scheduled each season. With the clearing season limited by the weather—Miller can only access the site when it isn’t covered in snow, typically from May to November—he had to make the most of the time he had.
Much of the work of clearing the ski runs is thinning trees: mulching lodgepole pines and scrub alpine firs while keeping desirable white bark pines. The White Bark Pines are native to the area and have been devastated recently by pine beetles. Saving them is vital, because they provide nuts that are a main source of nutrients for grizzly bears. Turns out, Miller can count among his fans not only the skiers, but also the denizens of the forest that come out when the snow melts.
Miller and his team will take down trees anywhere from 1-inch dog hairs all the way up to a 12-inch fir. The CAT 320 nimbly moves between the keeper trees while the Fecon BH40 makes short work of clearing the rest. He estimated that he ranged anywhere from 2-10 acres a day based on the terrain.
CARBIDES DO THE WORK
Fecon offers a variety of rotor and teeth combinations for the Bull Hog, but Miller exclusively runs carbides. The terrain around Big Sky is notoriously rocky, and Miller frequently finds himself grinding granite instead of wood. A regular tooth would shatter instantly, creating downtime as Miller would have to replace it manually in the field.
The carbides take a beating, but they hold up on site, meaning Miller can replace them on his own terms in the shop. Less time changing teeth on site means more time mulching, and with the limited season for clearing, Miller has to make the most of his time on site. Miller estimates he gets a year’s worth of work out of the carbide teeth before he has to change them.
In addition to changing teeth and greasing regularly, Miller’s normal maintenance routine also involves adding new wear pads and chains when needed.
Due to the remote nature of many of Miller’s jobsites—accessible only by chair lift and skis for most of the year—the trees have to be mulched in place rather than removed wholesale. Mulching not only makes for even terrain when the snow falls, it also provides a long-lasting, sustainable bed of nutrients for the forest floor. The BH40 takes down the trees then transforms them into a neat pile of finely sized material.
As the phases of the resort project unfolded, the terrain looked more like a ski resort each year. Where before the mountain side was wild forest, now it features 50 neatly carved runs ready for skiers and snowboarders. Now that the resort is fully up and running, the slopes are packed with powder and powderheads, and Miller is onto the next project.
Whether it’s clearing for real estate or runs for another ski resort, Miller’s confident that his BH40 is up to the task. The severe-duty build and the efficient mulching capabilities ensure that not only will it last for another 10 years, but Miller will be making good use of it for that long, too.
For More Information:
Whether you are buying, renting, or servicing your mulching equipment, FECON has solutions that focus on your success. For more, visit www.fecon.com.
Modern Contractor Solutions, September 2021
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