Technology: Good for people, good for the environment

Published September 1, 2001

During the Independence Day weekend of 1999, northern Minnesota suffered one of the worst windstorms in recorded history. Millions of trees were leveled.

The devastation occurred primarily in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), a federally protected region of one million acres in which motorboat and snowmobile use is severely restricted and logging and mining are banned. The trees that littered the ground quickly became a fire hazard.

But tree removal would have directly conflicted with the environmental mandates placed on the BWCAW area. While some logging was allowed near residential areas at high risk, loggers were not allowed to take the vast majority of the fallen timber. The fire hazard would not be solved quickly, and perfectly good timber rotted on the forest floor.

The U.S. Forest Service ultimately decided to conduct controlled burns for several years to reduce the danger of fire in the area.

Eventually, burning may well address the problem . . . but extensive logging would have helped significantly. At the time of the storm, such thinking was a political impossibility. Though logging made practical sense in this situation, it was not feasible given the forces against machinery.

Machinery: A better way

As chairman of ASV, an affiliate of Caterpillar, Inc., this story is of great interest to me: not only because we’re headquartered just a couple hundred miles south of the Boundary Waters, but because we manufacture high-tech, environmentally sensitive construction equipment. We’ve discovered and developed technology that makes a heavy, powerful machine light on the ground; Caterpillar has invested more than $20 million with us.

Our equipment–and equipment developed by others in the industry who have followed our lead–does not damage the earth. We use 48 wheeled contact points within a rugged reinforced rubber-track. The wheels are placed in such a way as to take the pressure off any single pressure point, effectively distributing the weight of the machine. When our 9,000-pound machine drives over the earth, it has the same impact as a kindergartner running across your lawn in sneakers.

I won’t claim this new equipment would have been the only solution in the BWCAW. My point is simply this: Technological advances have allowed for the development of heavy equipment that will not cause so much as a dent in the wilderness.

That’s exactly what the BWCAW asks of visitors. “Will you accept the wilderness challenge? . . . Leave No Trace,” its Web site reads. We would have liked an opportunity to take up that challenge.

A troubling assumption

Concerns about how equipment is used in environmentally sensitive areas are perfectly valid. It is the assumption that technology cannot solve our problems that is troubling. Be it fuel efficiency, global warming, or vehicle emissions, many observers fail to realize the rapid pace at which technology is proceeding to address environmental issues.

The construction industry, for example, is burdened by the common notions that all heavy equipment is made equal, that it does not change over time, and that it must be destructive. The rapid advance of technology in my industry rarely garners much attention.

At ASV, we did not set out to create gentle machinery to save the world. We did it to create jobs, to build a profitable company, and to achieve growth for our shareholders. We did it to build machines that were extremely efficient and powerful on traditional construction sites . . . as well as friendly to environmentally sensitive sites.

Through the inventiveness of the human brain, combined with the qualities of capitalism, technology is created that benefits society . . . and nature. The machines of tomorrow will be even more efficient, more powerful, and more environmentally friendly than those of today.

Environmental forestry

Contractors, foresters, and local government officials are becoming increasingly aware of equipment that meets both the needs of the real world and the needs of the ecosystem. Environmental forestry is not merely an hypothesis; it’s being carried out by numerous foresters around the country.

Mark Smith, an Oregon-based forester, is one of them.

“Loggers today continue to use harvesting methods that are more expensive and more environmentally harmful than necessary. I founded this business to prove that point,” says Smith.

Smith operates environmental machinery in place of traditional methods. With it, he leaves scant soil compaction. He doesn’t tear up or crush sensitive root systems of trees that aren’t to be cut. And, he minimizes the soil runoff into nearby fish-bearing streams and rivers.

“We either manage our forests, or they (the federal government) will take them away from us. It’s as simple as that. We either find a way to responsibly harvest timber without destroying other trees and harming the surrounding environment, or we won’t be allowed to go in there at all,” he warns.

Environmentally sensitive construction

The role for environmentally sensitive equipment goes well beyond forestry. New technology in the construction industry is changing the old rules there as well.

John Perkins, a contractor in Minneapolis, recently used new machinery to work around a wetland, while also doing difficult work in digging out a drainage system overgrown with vegetation and silt. Other methods likely would have meant destruction of the wetland.

“Whether I’m working for a city or a private homeowner, environmental concerns are just about always there,” says Perkins. “Whether a city needs us to work in environmentally sensitive marshes or a homeowner is concerned about turf damage, these new machines allow us to work while not worrying about the damage we might otherwise cause.”

This is good news. Because of the technology, even government agencies are finding out it is possible to do hard work with an eye on the environment.

Governments get sensitive

The Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District in southern California is responsible for the maintenance of 82 miles of creeks and streams criss-crossing the county’s fertile river valley. Without the constant effort, vegetation would overtake the rivers and cause the formation of lakes and swamps, which would increase the likelihood of flooding. Just downstream is populous Orange County, which relies on the water for drinking and therefore needs a continuous flow.

However, the river valley is also a remote area, fraught with mud, swamps, quicksand, and giant reed grass that can grow a foot a day. Much of the vegetation there is protected by the government.

“Conventional machinery would destroy sensitive root systems, which essentially would kill the vegetation,” said Mark Biloki, operations and maintenance superintendent for the Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District.

According to Biloki, new high-tech machinery has proven not to harm the existing vegetation, and actually allows Riverside County to access areas unreachable before.

“The low ground pressure is what we have to have–these are ideal pieces of equipment,” said Biloki. “We get into areas we never could have gotten to before, and it makes our difficult job that much easier.”

A wide range of uses

Contractors are now able to build near wetlands without doing the damage they might have; they are able to walk on turf without doing harm; and they are able to move through forests with nary a trace. In California, contractors are use such machinery to reshape rivers through sensitive valleys, and in Rhode Island, the equipment is being used to reestablish salt marshes destroyed during the 1930s.

Environmentally sensitive machinery was used to resod sensitive Lambeau Field, where the football Packers play, and it’s used on simple home and building construction projects to grade and dig.

Even the U.S. Air Force has found a use for the new technology. Before returning the Panama Canal Zone to Panama under terms of a 1978 treaty, the U.S. first had to remove hundreds of tons of unexploded bombs. Since the 1950s, the Air Force had used the area as a practice bombing site, and bombs, often buried in the ground, littered the site. Steep slopes, 10-foot high Kuna grass, and deep marshes made the bomb recovery an extremely difficult operation.

With the new technology, however, an operator using a remote-controlled machine was able to climb up and over the rocky terrain, move through the difficult swamps, and glide gently atop the unexploded bombs. While there was still a danger of the machine setting off a bomb–the vehicle does not levitate–its extremely low ground pressure lowered that risk substantially.

“Range clearance is a very labor intensive and dangerous effort, but by using the machine and the attachments, we were able to reduce the time, effort, and risk significantly,” said Charles Green, senior electrical engineer at Applied Research Associates, which operated the machine on behalf of the Air Force. “The EOD personnel felt a lot safer clearing a target after the machine has been through it, mowed the grass, and exposed the subsurface ordnance items.”

Walking on eggshells

As a final example of how technology can overcome difficult environmental dilemmas, witness what has occurred in the community of Clearwater, Florida. Its beaches required major reconstruction, and the city had to overcome the fact that most machinery harmed turtle eggs buried only inches from the surface of the beach.

Environmentally sensitive construction equipment provided the solution. The machines are so light on the beach, they do not harm turtle eggs. Now, as the city works to maintain the beaches, life continues for humans and animals alike, with no need for an outright ban on machinery.

Technology advances

The year 2000 was the best year ever for ASV’s environmentally sensitive equipment lineup. Sales reached $43.8 million, and we expect the trend to continue.

The moral of the story is this: Those who advocate extreme, economically hurtful measures to protect the planet do so out of blindness to the advances technology makes every year.

Ten years ago, we didn’t have technology that could make construction equipment light on the ground. Today we do.

What will we have in another 10 years? No one knows for sure . . . but what we have on the drawing board is incredible.

Gary Lemke is chairman and CEO of ASV, Inc., an affiliate of Caterpillar Inc. The company’s Web address is