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STEVENSVILLE — It took nine chops for Aaron Klug to cut his way through a tree trunk as thick as his own leg.

His results weren’t due to his physical condition (which was impressive, thanks for asking), but to his efficiency. As Alpine Physical Therapy therapist Jess Kehoe put it, Klug’s overhead ax swing used a kinetic chain of muscles to get more power from his symmetrical flexion than he would have with the rotational motion of an over-the-shoulder swing.

“That’s it — I need those words,” Adam Washebek said to Kehoe. “I know the overhead swing works better, but I need to explain why.”

Washebek and Klug are two of the U.S. Forest Service’s top ax-and-saw experts. They pack axes sharp enough to shave the hair off their own arms, and they teach fellow foresters the arcana of hand-powered sawing and chopping. But until now, they haven’t had the words to describe the physical tricks they demonstrate.

Enter Kehoe and colleague Leah Versteegen, who hiked into a patch of the Bitterroot National Forest where Washebek and Klug were helping make a training manual for tree-toppling techniques. The two physical therapists had no experience logging, but they knew all about the needs of what they call “tactical athletes.”

The “tactical athlete” term usually refers to military fighters and law enforcement officers, who need physical skills similar to, but separate from, those of sports athletes. Versteegen said the same training needs apply to sawyers and firefighters in the woods.

“We’re watching for the biomechanics of cutting,” Versteegen said. “We’re looking for ways to prepare the body beforehand, how to train to use a saw or ax. We’re looking for ways to minimize strain on the lower back and shoulders. We also want to see what happens when you’re in pain or fight-or-flight mode.”

In stressful situations (like initial attack on a forest fire), people make physical mistakes that compromise their working ability and lead to accidents. They misplace their feet when swinging an ax. They bypass the rules for proper lifting. Physical therapy can influence not only the exercise training for the body, but how to manage the mental state in the workplace.

“In fires, you’re working 16-hour shifts,” said Pete Duncan, Forest Service national saw program manager. “Adrenaline can mask fatigue. You’re working with a bunch of 20- and 30-year-olds who think they're invincible. They won’t be the first to quit, and they won’t give up the saw.”

But they will hold the 20-pound chainsaw out from their bodies while they’re cutting brush, stressing their lower backs. They will jerk crosscut saws with their arms, instead of swinging it with their hips. They bend over to pick up logs, forgetting the rule for proper lifting stance: “Ass in the grass/eyes to the sky.”

Later this summer, all those skills and the physical therapy advice will go into a training manual update all Forest Service field workers will study. It will also apply to cooperating agencies and volunteer organizations that do trail maintenance work.

“We don’t think this has ever been done before,” said Forest Service project leader Bob Beckley, who’s helping write the new guidelines. “When I joined the Forest Service, chainsaw training was: Here’s a chainsaw. Cut the bottom of a tree and it falls over.”

Over the decades, the agency added protective measures such as leg chaps and face guards. It devised improved cuts for safely bringing down trees. But it had little advice for what should happen on the other end of the machine.   

“Usually we only get to see these people after they’ve injured themselves,” Versteegen said. “We want to show them how to better prepare their bodies, rather than react to problems.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.