Creating smart sawyers is the goal of the new paradigm in USFS crosscut and chainsaw certification.

By Sandy Compton, NWSA board member.


FSPW trail crew uses a crosscut saw to clear blowdown from 
new construction of a portion of Trail #65 in the proposed 
Scotchman Peaks Wilderness in Idaho


Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness is one many organizations nationwide that partner with the Forest Service in stewardship of public lands, including weed abatement, stream bank restoration, white bark pine restoration and most notably, trail maintenance and construction. As a Forest Service partner, I was a recent beneficiary of the first Region One Wilderness Skills Institute, at Powell Ranger Station on the Lochsa River. During the Institute training, volunteer partners — as well as Forest Service personnel — learned a method of saw training that is part of the Forest Service’s new national saw policy.

Without getting into the weeds about OSHA requirements and the bureaucratic underpinnings of government agencies, the saw policy adopted in 2016 by the Forest Service is revolutionary. After decades of different Regional requirements — at one time a Region One C sawyer might have to undergo recertification to saw in Region Four — the USFS has a manual that applies to chainsaw and crosscut saw operators nationwide. They also have a new method of certifying sawyers. And, they are certifying partner volunteers.

Saw operators come in several varieties. An “A” sawyer is a raw trainee. “B” sawyers are generally certified to do ground work (bucking) and a very limited amount of felling. “C” sawyers are certified to buck, fell and train “A” and “B” sawyers. A “C” Certifier tops the skill set, with the ability to train as well as certify all levels of sawyers.

As land management agencies suffer from reduced budgets, they naturally struggle to get their jobs done. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the National Trail System, most of which is managed by the Forest Service. Where once dozens of seasonal employees might show up each summer on a Ranger District to work on trails, trail crews have shrunk to 4 or 5. Districts are having to accept that some trails are just not going to get annual attention. This is frustrating for the agency and especially frustrating for outdoor recreationists who use those trails.

It follows that place-based volunteer organizations like FSPW are becoming important to Forest Service goals of maintaining and building trails. Where once volunteers were viewed with a cautious eye and required to work under direct supervision of Forest Service personnel, more and more trail work is being undertaken by self-supervised volunteer crews, or crews organized and supervised by staff from organizations like FSPW, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation or the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation.

As part of the saw policy revolution, the Forest Service is not only training and certifying volunteer sawyers, they are certifying volunteers and NGO staff to be trainers and certifiers as well.

Possibly the most profound change in policy is the method sawyers now use to determine how to fell a tree or clear a blow-down mess. In the new training, the emphasis has moved from rote memorization to an emphasis on creating smart sawyers who rely more on situational analysis than on rules and regulations.

During the Wilderness Skills Institute, cross-cut sawyers from the FS and their partners were introduced to OHLEC, a method for determining how to safely proceed when removing a hazard tree or a blow down mess from a trail.

Newbie sawyers Corey and Jake from Montana Conservation Corps — neither of whom had even seen a crosscut saw before — learn the finer points of underbucking. 


OHLEC is an acronym for five stages of a saw project; whether it be felling, bucking, limbing or brushing. The stages are as follows:

O: Determine the Objective, be it hazard tree removal — where the tree is to fall — or safely clearing a segment of trail of blow-down.

H: Determine Hazards that might be encountered in reaching the Objective. Widow-makers, power-lines, tripping hazards, buildings, nearby roads and trails, human presence and myriad other things might be considered Hazards.

L: Which way and how much does the tree Lean? Or, in the case of downed trees, what forces will affect the behavior of the tree and the saw when it’s cut. Sawyers use a plumb-bob to determine front or back Lean and side Lean of a standing tree, and then determine what adjustments have to be made to achieve the Objective. Similarly, blow-down is studied to determine how a single tree might react if cut in a certain way, or, if it’s part of a larger mess, how it will affect the rest of the pile.

E: Escape routes are created in advance, cleared of tripping hazards and providing as sawyers protection by distance or obstacles between the potential hazard and the sawyers.

C: The Cut plan is the crux of all other planning. The introduction of basic math into the process makes it a simpler to fell a tree. Through simple formulas, the direction of fall, depth of face cut, amount of hinge wood and the stump shot are determined before the saw enters the wood. In the case of blow down, top, side and bottom bind are determined and the Cut plan reflects the physics involved in the release of those forces during the cutting. A brushing or limbing project will include swamping plans — where is the slash going to go.

This is a simplified version of OHLEC, but real training — which moves out of the classroom and into the field much more quickly than the old training — is not much more complicated that this basic explanation. Training also spends time on the “zen of crosscut,” matching the sawyer’s body placement and movement to the saw and their partner for the best effect.

Through the new policy, work in the field has been made safer and more efficient. And, training for new sawyers and those wanting to moved to a higher certification has been greatly simplified. In the initial classroom session at Powell, body language in the room changed dramatically as a cadre of seasoned Forest Service and volunteer sawyers— many of them C-level — recognized that their next certification session was going to be a.) easier, b.) more effective and c.) more fun — whether they were certifying someone else or being recertified.

Sandy Compton is Program Coordinator for FSPW. He achieved “C” Certifier status for crosscut at the Institute. FSPW crews use crosscut saws to clear trails in the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness.