Minimal Impact Logging : How to Take the Trees You'll Use Without Damaging the Rest

With a little finesse and the proper forestry equipment, you can bring any log in from the woods with a lot less power and virtually no damage to your woodlot.

Years ago, we had a local logger with a good reputation harvest oak and walnut lumber on our family tree farm in southwest Missouri. The contract provided for an 8% bonus for careful practices that would not damage other growing stock or make ruts on trails. For the first week, I watched with great respect as he dropped the trees precisely where they would do the least damage and carefully pulled logs out of the woods with his cable skidder, coming within a hair of bumping crop trees, but never actually touching them. It was summer and the ground was hard and dry. He hardly left a mark.

Toward the middle of the second week, all that changed. The trees were coming down in what appeared to be random directions. The Detroit Diesel engine in his skidder was running full throttle almost from the moment he started to the time he shut it down. Pulling tree-length logs out of the woods took everything that skidder had as the logs gouged the trails and gashed the trees he had so carefully avoided before. White oak and walnut trees with veneer potential had the bark stripped off of them by his carelessness. By the time we put a stop to it, the damage was already done. He just shrugged his shoulders and informed us that it was the end of the month, as if that was the only explanation needed. I later learned that he owed the bank a considerable sum for his equipment and he was on the verge of losing it. A few extra loads might be enough to keep creditors away for another month. He hasn’t been back since.

What if you want to harvest and bring in your own wood, either lumber or firewood? With a little finesse and the proper forestry equipment, you can bring any log in from the woods with a lot less power and virtually no damage to your woodlot. If you have a small tractor or four-wheel drive ATV, you already have the pulling muscle to move logs. With the right attachments, they can bring in surprisingly large loads and in a few weeks, you’ll be hard pressed to see where they came out of the woods. I use the techniques described in this article to provide my portable sawmill with logs, and to bring in firewood. I am always looking for better tools and more efficient ways to use them, but this is what I’ve learned in the past 20 years.


As much as I would love to buy a small skidder, a limited budget dictates that I do the best I can with what I have. My main piece of equipment is a 1953 8N Ford tractor, affectionately known as “Henry.” There is something special about starting up that old Ford. Ignition on… press the starter… a little choke… the first two cylinders cough to life and smoke billows out the exhaust. Engine speed picks up when the third cylinder kicks in a few seconds later. When cylinder #4 lights up, it settles to a smooth deep-throated rumble and we’re ready to go to work. Dragging logs on the ground was slow, took a lot of power, and tore up the trails. With the added weight on the back and the torque from pulling, the front tires spent a lot of time off the ground, and I had to steer with the woefully inadequate wheel brakes—and one foot on the clutch for those times when the log dug in and the front end came up so high, I felt like I was looking down at the sky. And poor old Henry couldn’t even budge some of the big ones. But with the proper technique and a few attachments, even this 20 HP tractor can easily pull 30" diameter, 12' long oak logs. While weight and traction are certainly factors, most four-wheel-drive ATVs have more power than that tractor, and are also capable of bringing in logs and firewood. The log arch does more to extend the capabilities of a small tractor or ATV than any other tool I know of.


Log arches suspend the log in a frame supported by two axles. Since the arch holds the weight of the log, there is much less weight dragging on the ground, and less stress on the tractor.

A 30" arch proved a good match for Henry. The first time I used it, the log followed so easily that I kept looking back to make sure it was actually there. The tires distribute the weight of the log, and cause little noticeable compaction to the trail. The arch also reduces fuel consumption and wear on the tractor, and significantly cuts time on the trail, since I can pull in second or third gear. Occasionally, I have to trim an oversized log to fit it into the arch, but I haven’t left a single log in the woods since I got it.

Arches are a safe way to move logs, especially for ATVs. Without an arch to support it, the weight of the log pushes down on the back of the ATV, which compromises steering. If the log digs into the ground or snags on a tree root, the already light front end can come off the ground. In a worst case, the ATV can roll over backwards. With no rollover protection, the results can be deadly.

Even farm tractors have rolled over backwards with larger logs. According to the Louisiana Agricultural Extension Service, 80% of all farm accidents are tractor rollovers. The report states that “In a backwards tip, for example, the tractor engine powers the tractor to rotate about the rear axle. The tractor can overturn in less than a second—too quickly for the operator to react.” Log arches mitigate the problem by reducing the amount of power required to pull the log, bearing the weight of the log, and lifting the front end of the log off the ground to keep it from digging in and nagging on stumps.

Norwood’s SkidMate log-skidding arches are available for both tractors and ATVs and have several unique features. The wheels are directly under the frame, giving the arch a narrow footprint that allows it through tight places. The log fastens to a roller, which rides up on the arch frame, lifting the log when pulled. Backing up the ATV or tractor lowers the log for easy disconnecting.


If the log is at the bottom of a ravine or in a patch of timber that you don’t want to disturb, a winch may be your best tool for getting it to the tractor. Tractor-mounted winches attach to the three-point hitch and use the PTO for power. I bought one at an auction a few years ago. With a 60’ long 3/8” diameter cable, it will reel in just about any log the tractor can pull. There are several manufacturers, including Farmi, Tajfun, and Wallenstein. The nicer (more expensive) winches have a remote control so you don’t have to walk back and forth between the tractor and the log. If my winch ever wears out, I’ll get one with a remote.

I purchased a Lewis chainsaw winch after reviewing one for Independent Sawmill& Woodlot Management magazine. The Lewis winch attaches easily to any chain saw, but I keep mine mounted on my Husqvarna 365 so it’s always ready to use. It is rated at 4,000 pounds of pulling force, but a snatch block can double. I’ve found that 80 feet of cable is plenty, since I can winch a log in multiple pulls, if necessary. The winch does require a good anchor point, though. It will pull a tractor sideways, if the log is heavy enough! In addition to pulling logs to the trail, winches are useful for safely pulling trees down when they get hung up and pulling vehicles out of the ditch. The winch frame bears all the pulling force. There is no stress on the chain saw itself. There is also a gas powered capstan winch that uses a rope instead of steel cable, which works quite well.


Professional loggers connect the winch line to a log with a “choker.” This is a short cable or chain that goes around the end of a log and pulls tight when you reel in the winch line. Choker chains or cables are simple, lightweight, and give a solid, reliable connection. They can hold a bundle of small logs, making them ideal for bringing in firewood. They can, however, be difficult to get around a log if it is resting flat on the ground. Logging tongs are much easier to set. Just drop the tongs on the log, set the hooks, and you’re ready to pull. In theory, the harder you pull, the tighter they grip the log. In practice, they often come off, and you have to walk back to the log to re-set them. I only use them when I can’t get a choker around a log, or if I need to grab a log at the center so I can lift it. Log grapples grip better than tongs, but they are a little heavier and more expensive. I’ll probably get a Norwood grapple if I lose my tongs out in the woods.


If a log can snag on a stump or plow into the ground, it will. It is in its nature to do so. A “skidding sled” solves the problem. This is a heavy plastic cone that fits over the end of the log. Skidding sleds slide the log over rocks and stumps with no problem, and leave few marks on the ground. I use a homemade sled built from a plastic 55-gallon barrel—just as effective and a lot cheaper than anything I could purchase. Even with the sled, I don’t drag logs any farther than I need to—as soon as I get them to the tractor, I hitch it to the arch and carry it from there.


The Ontario Woodlot Association makes the following recommendations for using ATVs to move logs:

  • The load should be no greater than the weight of the ATV.
  • Filling the tires with liquid (50/50 water/antifreeze solution) increases stability and load capability.
  • The ATV should be four-wheel drive with reverse.
  • A liquid cooled engine will last longer.
  • Do not use an ATV to move logs over uneven ground.
  • Disc brakes are more reliable than drum brakes.
  • Weight on the front can help reduce the chance of back rollover.

For heavier loads, use a tractor and log skidding arch. A chainsaw or gas powered winch should also be a high priority for any woods operations— plus they’re just plain handy for other jobs. Get a choker chain and a grapple—you’ll use both. Add a tractor winch to your equipment list if you move logs from remote places on a regular basis. Learn the limitations of your equipment and how to use it safely. If you routinely pull logs bigger than 14" diameter, build or buy a skidding sled. It will pay off.

Pay attention to what you’re doing, and don’t get in a hurry. Practice on flat areas, if possible, to get a feel for the equipment. Wear the proper safety gear—steel toe boots, and a logger’s helmet, plus chaps when using a chainsaw. Observe the weight limitations of any devices you use. A 30 HP to 50 HP four-wheel-drive tractor with power steering and a quick attach front end loader—and rollover protection—would be an ideal log mover for a woodlot operation.