Success Story | Innovative Small Business Owner Integral to Restoring Grazing Lands
May 6, 2020
Cecil Swaggart works with the Sage Grouse Initiative and Pheasants Forever to remove invading conifers from western rangeland. Photo: Connor White, SGI/PF.
Meet Cecil Swaggart, a sought-after contractor who removes problem conifers in sagebrush country
By Brianna Randall
When 82-year-old Cecil Swaggart arrives at what he calls his “retirement job”, it’s guaranteed to be a picturesque spot in the American West. His office is a 27-ton Timbco Feller Buncher that he modified with a specialized rotating grinder on the long hydraulic saw arm. His mission is to cut down and chop up invading juniper trees to restore valuable wildlife habitat and livestock grazing land.
“Over the last fifteen years, I’ve cut around 60,000 acres of conifers from New Mexico to Montana,” says Swaggart, gesturing to one of his two unique tree mastication machines.
Swaggart lives in the John Day valley of northeastern Oregon with his wife, Nancy. Married for 63 years, the Swaggarts raised four sons who have graced them with eleven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
As a contractor for the federal government, Swaggart travels all over the West with his specialized grinding machines. It takes two people to run one machine, so he manages five employees who help him restore sagebrush rangelands.
“Every time I cut a juniper someone benefits from it, whether you’re hunting elk or running cattle or want more water in the creek,” says Swaggart.
Woody species like juniper are marching across once wide-open grasslands and sagebrush-steppe at an alarming rate. In the past, the spread of these conifers was controlled by natural fire patterns. But due to fire suppression efforts, junipers have overtaken much of America’s productive grazing lands—and are displacing at-risk birds like sage grouse, along with critters like elk, pronghorn, and mule deer.
Wildlife and livestock suffer as conifers choke out the nutritious native grasses they rely on for food and shelter. Plus, each juniper tree can suck up 40 gallons of water per day, so as conifers spread, they dry up precious springs and streams. Adding insult to injury, the increased density of conifers leads to hotter, more extreme wildfires that leave noxious weeds in their wake.
“I think my greatest success was a job in Utah. Before we went to work, it was over a thousand acres of solid junipers, not a stick of grass around,” explains Swaggart. “You wouldn’t believe what it looks like now—green grass, two to three feet tall growing right up out of that desert.”
Ranching and rodeos
Swaggart was familiar with the threats posed by expanding conifers long before he went into business turning them into mulch. He was raised on a cattle ranch in Oregon, and also owned a ranch in eastern Montana for twenty years. On both ranches, Swaggart saw first-hand how removing junipers improved agricultural operations.
“I took junipers off my own ranch before I ever started doing this work. After we removed some of the trees we had running water from the seeps again,” says Swaggart.
In addition to ranching, Swaggart “used to rodeo”, which gave him an appreciation for the diverse landscapes and communities in the West. He rode bucking horses professionally until he was nearly thirty.
After his rodeo career, Swaggart started a timber logging business that he ran successfully for over three decades until he sold the company to his four sons in 2002.
At an age when most of his friends were already retired, Swaggart decided instead to try something new.
“I’m not a person who is good at sitting around. I don’t like golf and I’m too lazy to fish,” jokes Swaggart.
He bought two Timbco Feller Bunchers then retrofitted the machines himself with a specialized cutting tool called a bird’s-eye head, and also added a larger hydraulic pump to handle hefty loads of tree limbs. Then he filled out the paperwork to become a certified federal contractor.
Mastication is a fancy word for the tree chopping and grinding that Swaggart does with his feller machines. It’s the restoration method typically used in places where conifers have become very dense, leaving little or no understory vegetation beneath them.
In these locations, a helicopter or plane first spreads native grass and forb seed, coating the soil surface with seeds. Swaggart then comes in with his machines to grind the trees and scatter their remnants. The branches and wood chips act as mulch that protects the seedlings and helps retain soil moisture longer into the summer.
“To help the landscape regenerate, we place the branches in positions where the grass can grow right up through them, and the heads we use on those machines ensures the mulch isn’t too deep. It gets distributed pretty well,” says Swaggart.
He works on conifer removal projects year-round, even in the snow. However, Swaggart doesn’t masticate trees when it might disturb the mating or migration of sensitive species.
“We don’t cut trees much in June or July because songbirds are nesting,” he says. “And we also hold up when mule deer are moving,”
According to Swaggart, a couple ways to “mess up” mastication projects is by causing too much soil disturbance with the machinery, or by not grinding the debris fine enough—both mistakes that would discourage the regrowth of native grasses and forbs.
“My business motto is to have a happy customer. When I do a job, my goal is that the customer shakes your hand and invites you back to do more work,” says Swaggart.
This video shows one of Swaggart’s masticators in action. Click to watch. Video courtesy of the BLM.
Happy customers on Idaho’s Burley Project
Connor White is one of those happy customers. As a range and wildlife conservationist with Pheasants Forever, White has done much of the contracting for extensive conifer removal work in southern Idaho as part of the Burley Landscape Project.
“We’ve hired Cecil back each year for nearly a decade,” says White. “We see great results from his mastication.”
Since 2012, in an effort spearheaded by the Bureau of Land Management’s Twin Falls District, Pheasants Forever and its partners have removed encroaching juniper from 37,000 acres in southern Idaho as part of a partnership effort to restore habitat for sage grouse. The partners—who also include the USDA-NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Idaho Department of Lands, Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation, private landowners, and many grazing permit holders—are now working to remove conifers from an additional 73,000 acres of prime sagebrush habitat on BLM and USFS lands.
So far, partners have spent nearly $4.7 million restoring rangeland through the Burley Landscape Project—and much of it has gone to small businesses like Swaggart’s.
While he mostly cuts conifers on public lands, Swaggart has started to get more inquiries from private ranchers who want to boost their operations, too. He notes that while many ranchers don’t have enough money to invest in conifer removal, groups like the Sage Grouse Initiative provide cost-share for projects that benefit birds and cattle herds.
Since its inception in 2010, the Sage Grouse Initiative has helped remove conifers across a total of more than 780,500 acres, reclaiming core sage grouse habitat and improving range health.
“We’re being proactive to address a known problem. Removing conifers creates a diverse, native plant community that is more resilient to fire and resistant to weeds,” says White. “That’s good for grouse and good for ranchers.”
And it’s also a win-win for small business owners like Cecil Swaggart, who gets paid to help restore the rangelands he calls home.
“I put these machines together myself so they could get more work done. I’m just glad everyone likes the product that comes out of it,” says Swaggart.
The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.