Loggers plan Duluth protest over I-35 weight restrictions

Logging trucks from across northern Minnesota will gather in Duluth on Thursday and caravan down Superior Street to protest federal weight restrictions on the Interstate highway system.

Logging truck
A logging truck converted from an 18-wheeler to a 22-wheeler to enable a heavier payload is shown in this 2006 file photo. (2006 file / Minnesota Timber Producers)

Logging trucks from across northern Minnesota will gather in Duluth on Thursday and caravan down Superior Street to protest federal weight restrictions on the Interstate highway system.

More than 50 trucks from members of the Associated Contract Loggers and truckers group are expected to converge on the city about 9 a.m. with a rally at RMS Supplies near the Port Authority along Garfield Avenue.

Organizers decided against breaking the law by driving down I-35 in Duluth. And while the caravan could cause some brief traffic slowdowns in Duluth, it should help make the issue better known to the general public, said Scott Dane, executive director of the logging group.

The problem is that loggers like to haul as big a load as possible behind their semis, saving on diesel fuel and making fewer and quicker trips from the woods to the mill. The preferred system is a six-axle truck carrying 90,000 pounds or more of wood.

Federal regulations limit truck weights to 80,000 pounds on the Interstate system within Minnesota. Instead, logging trucks must drive down alternative routes, like Highway 61, Superior Street, Mesaba Avenue and other city streets.


"We have trucks coming up from the south driving parallel to the freeway on old Highway 61. That doesn't make sense. We have trucks forced to drive through residential and city streets in Duluth where they really don't belong," Dane said.

Elroy Kuehl, of Ely, will send nearly 50 trucks per week through Duluth during the peak winter logging months, and the current restrictions are forcing his drivers to take slower, longer routes to deliver wood to the NewPage mill in Duluth and a log-loading area along a railroad siding in Superior.

"The biggest thing is safety. We don't belong on the side streets in Duluth," Kuehl said. "And we're making way too many stops. It doesn't make sense when we could move right through town on the freeway."

Logging interests already have secured exemptions for Interstate freeways in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Idaho, Dane said. Michigan allows trucks of all types up to 120,000 pounds.

Efforts have been made in Washington for the past three years to change the law in Minnesota and Wisconsin to give loggers the same exemption nationwide, including legislation by U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-North Branch, but those efforts have stalled amidst stubborn opposition, including from the competing railroad industry.

Opponents say allowing loggers to carry higher weight limits opens the doors for all industries to demand bigger, heavier trucks. Highway safety organizations say big trucks often are less safe on freeways with passenger cars.

Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of another Minnesota logging group, the Minnesota Timber Producers, which is not involved in Thursday's rally, said adding an extra 10,000 pounds to the Interstate weight limit would save logging truckers about 15 percent in fuel costs, a huge difference in a low-margin industry. Minnesota raised the logging weight limit to 90,000 pounds on state highways several years ago.

"The science is pretty clear that adding an axle with brakes actually does less damage" to roadways, Brandt said. "These aren't bigger trucks; it's just a little more weight that's spread out more."


The weight restrictions are one more problem for a Minnesota logging industry that has faced multiple mill and plant closures in recent years, slashing demand for timber to about half of its peak a decade ago.

The wood products industry's problems are numerous, including dwindling demand for the paper and board products made in Duluth and competition from cheaper sources of fiber and substitute products worldwide.

Dane said Minnesota officials are working to ease restrictions on timber sales on state land, but that private landowners who account for about half of the timber in Minnesota aren't selling their trees, waiting for timber prices to return to higher levels seen before the global recession hit.

"We need the state to tell that international (business) community that Minnesota has an abundant supply of affordable fiber here that's sustainable," Dane said. "We need to encourage new investment into new products."

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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