‘They’re putting me out of my livelihood’ says logger

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

René Savoie stands next to a stump of a tree he and his brother cut down. He estimates the tree was about 150 years old, pointing out the rotted center. Other, younger trees are still standing.

GUILDERLAND — René Savoie has been a logger for more than 40 years and has never run into a situation like he has been caught up in now in Guilderland.

Savoie has had to stop his operation and has three neatly stacked piles of timber worth about $10,000 that he now can’t move.

“They’re putting me out of my livelihood,” he told The Enterprise on Saturday.

“Right now, I’m losing over $10,000 a month … If I don’t take those logs to market, I don’t have any income. As of December 29th, I have not taken in a dime. I still have mortgage and insurance payments.”

Savoie takes pride in his work and believes he is being unfairly maligned. The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation has issued no notices of violation in the case, a department spokeswoman said on Tuesday.

The Enterprise broke a story about the logging on Dec. 31  (“Cease-and-desist orders did not stop tree-cutting for proposed development”).

The town issued the orders because a developer, Jason Zappia of Prime Capital Development, has proposed a 41-lot subdivision on 159 acres on the outskirts of Altamont but hadn’t been through the planning process before trees started coming down.

Guilderland’s town planner and its building and zoning inspector had issued two cease-and-desist orders to Zappia and his engineer.

The problem, though, as The Enterprise reported, was that the first two orders were not issued to the logger, Savoie, or to the property’s owner, Richard Freidlander. A third order was issued to all four parties and Savoie hasn’t cut a tree since.

The final two cease-and-desist orders said the logging ran afoul of three town subdivision regulations and a state regulation that says, “A project sponsor may not commence any physical alteration related to an action until the provisions of SEQR have been complied with.” SEQR is the State Environmental Quality Review process.

Savoie, however, said he had no knowledge that a subdivision was going to be proposed when he struck a deal with Frielander in July. He checked the town’s zoning, he said, and also contacted the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation because he was aware of the designation of the northern long-eared bat as a threatened species.

(Effective Jan. 30, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is reclassifying the northern long-eared bat as an endangered species; the restrictions will remain the same.)

Savoie got the go-ahead from the DEC to start logging as long as he did so within the time frame of Nov. 1 to March 31, he said. This is the period when the bats are hibernating in caves and so not affected by the felling of trees.

Savoie calculated he could just complete the job in that time frame if the weather cooperated.

Savoie went so far as to leave some dead trees at the DEC’s request so that, if bats return to the area, they would have a place to live.

The Enterprise toured the property with Savoie on Saturday and saw the trees he had left as the DEC had requested.

Savoie said he had worked with Trish Gabriel throughout the process at the DEC and that she ultimately told him, “You were caught in the middle.”

Gabriel, a deputy regional permit administrator, told The Enterprise, “I’m not allowed to comment” and referred The Enterprise to a DEC spokeswoman who answered a list of questions ahead of the newspaper’s Tuesday night deadline “on background,” meaning she didn’t want her name used.

Asked if Gabriel had said Savoie was “caught in the middle,” the spokeswoman responded, “On a phone call with Mr. Savoie, DEC staff described Mr. Savoie as being subject to an apparent miscommunication between the town, the developer, and the landowner.”

Asked if the DEC had given Savoie any other conditions besides the time frame to protect the bats, the spokeswoman responded that Savoie had called in the spring and “DEC Bureau of Wildlife and Division of Environmental Permits staff advised Mr. Savoie that if tree cutting occurs between November 1 and March 31, a Part 182 permit is not required from DEC for timber harvesting.

“During this interaction,” the spokeswoman continued in her emailed answers, “Mr. Savoie did not mention that a residential subdivision was ultimately planned for the subject property, and therefore, DEC did not have an opportunity to discuss when the DEC Construction Stormwater General Permit silviculture exemption was or was not applicable.”

While Savoie said he knew nothing about Zappia’s plans for the property — and had not even known that Zappia existed — he said it is “a very common practice” for a property owner like Friedlander to have his land logged before selling it to get the value from the timber.

Savoie is harvesting trees on roughly 40 acres, he said, which is part of a much larger parcel.

He has harvested timber all over New York State since 1982, he said, adding, “It is a dangerous and difficult job.” 

His business, Savoie Logging and Contracting, is based in Fultonville. Savoie, who is 66, works felling trees with just his brother. Their goal is to cut 8 to 10 trees a day, which he contrasts with reports from neighbors of the proposed development who estimated 25 to 30 trees a day were coming down.


The work

Savoie moved his equipment to the Guilderland site on Nov. 1, he said. He said that, because Friedlander has a right-of-way at the end of Armstrong Drive, Savoie could have saved a lot of time and money by placing his equipment there and working directly on the woodlot.

However, conscious that that would disturb the suburban neighborhood, he found someone a half-mile away on Gun Club Road who was willing to have him operate from there.

The Enterprise visited the site where Savoie keeps his equipment, which includes a slasher, a large loader machine that processes the timber to length; a cutting machine; and a skidder, on top of which the reporter rode along the skid roads that Savoie and his brother had created to remove the timber.

The first thing the Savoie brothers did was to hang ribbons along the boundaries of Friedlander’s property to be sure no timber was cut outside of that.

Savoie said that twice those markers have been removed behind the Armstrong neighborhood, costing him more time and labor.

In making the skid roads, the Savoie brothers cut sycamore trees to make a bridge of logs across the Black Creek. The water flows freely underneath this corduroy bridge and on Saturday was clear even as the log skidder crossed back and forth over the bridge.

“We do not disturb that water in any way,” Savoie said.

Savoie also pointed out a bumper log placed along the road leading up to the bridge to prevent any debris from falling into the creek.

At the Jan. 3 Guilderland Town Board meeting, which Savoie watched online, one of the neighbors said the loggers had illegally put a bridge over the Black Creek (“Moratorium on development urged as trees fall and committee works on future plan,” The Altamont Enterprise, Jan. 13, 2023).

“It’s a standard procedure,” Savoie said of building a log bridge — also called a timber mat — over a stream to protect the purity of the water. 

Asked if the log bridge is illegal, the DEC spokeswoman responded, “The stream located on the property is not a trout stream and is not considered ‘navigable waters of the State,’ therefore it is not regulated under the Article 15 Protection of Waters Program. DEC prefers loggers to utilize timber mats, but it is up to the logger to decide what to use in this case.”

Savoie stressed, “DEC told me I was under no violations on Dec. 29.”

Asked about this, the DEC spokeswoman said, “DEC has not issued any Notices of Violation for this incident. The site is within the town of Guilderland’s small municipal separate stormwater sewer system (MS4). As part of the town’s MS4 permit, the town is responsible for implementing and enforcing a program that addresses stormwater runoff to the small MS4 from construction activities that result in a land disturbance of greater than or equal to one acre.”

The majority of the timber the Savoie brothers have cut have been white and red oaks, hickory, and maple, Savoie said. They’ve also cut some ash, black birch, a small amount of white pine, and “a lot of useless sycamore,” he said, explaining that sycamore can’t be sold even for firewood.

The two brothers use chainsaws and the wedges that neighbors reported hearing.

“We practice directional felling,” said Savoie, “which means we do the least amount of damage. We put wedges to prevent damage to any other trees.”

The canopies of the big trees they fell are 20 to 60 feet wide and all of those branches are removed too.

Savoie is proud of the clean-up work he does and has a stack of letters and thank-you notes from satisfied customers in his pick-up truck with one of them calling him “Mr. Clean.”

One of his customers, William Griessler of Duanesburg, who had Savoie log about 25 acres two years ago, told The Enterprise this week, “I was very impressed with the work he did.”

Griessler said that loggers he had hired before left behind unuseable tops of the trees. But Griessler said of Savoie, “He cut up the tops that were no good into small pieces so they would rot, and gave us some firewood.”

He concluded, “None of the others cleaned up as nicely as he has. He left the woods in good condition.”

Savoie took particular offense at some neighbors alleging he was “sneaking around.”

“I don’t sneak,” he said.

Savoie said the reason the sounds of cutting and trees falling would stop and start is because “we only work when the ground is frozen.” Snow is helpful for sliding logs and there hasn’t been much this year. Some mornings, while frost was in the ground, he and his brother could work but then, they’d have to knock off when the sun warmed the ground.

The first time Savoie had any inkling there was trouble was on Dec. 29 when a police officer told him there was a complaint. Savoie said he explained what he had been hired to do and the officer said, “It doesn’t look to me like you’re doing anything wrong.”

Guilderland Police Chief Daniel McNally subsequently told The Enterprise that police could not take any action until the cease-and-desist order had been “served on all parties.”

McNally said that, since the orders had been served to the four parties — Zappia, his engineer, Friedlander, and Savoie — on Tuesday, Jan. 3, no more trees have been cut. He also said that discussions now are centering on removal of the felled trees.

Shortly after the Guilderland Police officer left on Dec. 29, Savoie said, Environmental Conservation Officer Kyle Bevis from the DEC came by and said, “I’m here to ask you a favor …. We’re asking you nicely to please shut down because we’re being bombarded with phone calls.”

He told Savoie he could finish up with the five to 10 trees he had on the ground, which Savoie did.

“I did not cut any more trees,” said Savoie.

The Enterprise saw one pile of big branches and twisted or imperfect logs that are meant to be split up for firewood or pulp and two separate piles of logs at “the landing” near Savoie’s big equipment that were intended to be sold as timber. But, Savoie said, he has been told he can’t move them.

Savoie explained that he cuts only old timber, nothing less than 14 inches at breast height. “The others stay for another harvest in 15 years,” he said.

The Enterprise ran two drone pictures — one with the December story and the other with the January story — showing open fields with a few cut trees on the ground. Those fields are on the other side of the Bozenkill from where Savoie had been working.

When The Enterprise on Saturday toured the woods where Savoie had been working, the property owned by Friedlander, it was obvious, from the stumps, that he had felled large trees among woods that still had many younger trees standing.


A logger’s view

Savoie grew up in the Fonda-Fultonville area on a dairy farm and worked on a dairy farm most of his life.

He says he is used to hard work

Once a logger took several loads of timber from his land and, said Savoie, “He never paid us a dime.”

He went on, “The woodlot looked like an atom bomb went off.”

When Savoie went to court to try to recoup some of his loss, he said, the judge said, “Stand in line” as the logger had bilked several others as well.

Savoie thought he’d clean up the mess and use it for firewood. A neighbor brought over a chainsaw and said, “You can take these to the mill and get money.”

Savoie rolled the timber on a tractor and made $300 at the mill, and then went on to buy a bigger tractor. He later got a used log skidder and a used log loader — and built his business from there.

His initial experience made him exacting in how he does his logging, careful to leave the land in good condition, he said.

Asked about the danger, he said, “People make their own danger. If you’re not aware of your own surroundings, if your mind is some place else, you’re going to get hurt.”

Savoie says that logging, done properly, helps a forest.

He pointed out that there were few, if any saplings, on the land he was logging in Guilderland because the canopy overhead had become so dense, which he said leaves little to nourish animals.

He pointed out a large stump from a tree he had felled, showing how the center of the old tree was rotted. He estimated the tree had been 150 years old.

“Forty percent of this woodlot is beyond maturity,” Savoie said.

The small pieces of wood he leaves behind, he said, turn into compost, nourishing the trees that remain.

He notes that 90 percent of new construction is wood and everything from toilet paper to a reporter’s notebook comes from timber.

“Now that the price of fuel oil has gone crazy, the market for firewood has too,” said Savoie.

He went on, “I harvest timber. Timber is a renewable resource. It replaces itself. Woodlots recreate themselves. It is 100 percent agricultural. I’m an agricultural business, which is no different than a farmer planting oats or corn or wheat.”

Savoie also said, “My brother and I take pride in our work. We don’t need to advertise. People call us.”

Of his current dilemma in Guilderland, Savoie said, “All of the time I’m shut down, I’m losing money. I personally don’t care if a development goes in there or not.”

What he doesn’t like is being made to feel like he is evil or has done something wrong.

“I’m losing my livelihood and I think it’s defamation of character,” said Savoie of comments neighbors of the woodlot have made. “It makes me look like a bad person.”

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