Racing Mother Nature

Morgan & Son Earthmoving doesn’t have much time each summer to get from start to finish on complicated, environmentally sensitive, road and river restoration jobs in remote parts of Washington state. With the clock ticking, and weather-related surprises always a risk, there’s no room for mistakes or machine downtime. That’s why the firm’s co-owners, Dan Morgan and sister Laurie Morgan-Bender, spend the off-season planning for every contingency – and why their fleet consists of nothing but Cat® equipment.

Dan Morgan starts every summer with a long to-do list – and a short amount of time to get it done.

His Ellensburg, Washington-based earth-moving company, founded by his grandfather and now run by Dan and his sister Laurie Morgan-Bender, operates in an interesting but demanding niche. The firm specializes in projects that make life a little easier for the state’s prized salmon and steelhead trout populations, rebuilding – or de-commissioning – old logging roads that intersect with the estuaries the migrating fish use as spawning beds.

The projects are good for the fish and good for the soul. The jobs invariably put Morgan and his crew to work deep in Washington State’s coniferous forests, where every breath they take is sweet-scented by the yews, pines, spruces, cedars and firs that give the Evergreen State its nickname. “I love working up here,” Dan says.

The scenery is as stunning as the air is fragrant. But Dan and his crew don’t get much of an opportunity to sit back and enjoy the view. As a result of the fishes’ long breeding and hatching cycle, the workers are in a race against a very short clock. In some cases, they have just two months to get in and out.

The so-called “fish window” is larger or smaller depending what kinds of fish call a particular stream home. But generally speaking, the work clock starts ticking for Dan and his crew around mid-July, when the fry from the previous fall’s spawning have cleared out of the creeks and rivers of central Washington. Time runs out for the workers by late September, early October, when the next cohort of spawning adults arrives in the area.

Mother Nature controls the clock. Completely. And some years, she likes to make things a little more challenging.

In 2015, the complication was a drought that sparked massive wildfires that consumed more than 8.7 million acres in the western United States – more than 1 million acres in Washington alone.

The fires prompted the Forest Service to close the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest, where Morgan & Son’s project was located, to all work activities. The firm was able to secure a temporary waiver so Dan and his crew could wrap up work on the job before the fish returned. But the permit required the small company to bring additional equipment on the site, including a fire trailer and a water truck equipped with a fire hose, and to post – for two hours at the end of every work day – a fire watch.

From the start, the narrow work window left no room for mistakes – or machine downtime. The extra costs required by the waiver made any additional unpleasant surprises financially ruinous. Yet Dan said he was still sleeping at night because every piece of equipment on the remote work site, including the water truck, was a Cat machine. “You have to have equipment you can rely on,” he says.

In 2015, massive wildfires in Washington prompted officials to close the forest to all work activities, requiring Morgan & Son Earthmoving to seek a temporary waiver so it could wrap up work on a project before the salmon returned. “No matter how much you plan in this business, things change and you have to adapt,” Dan says

A Family Business, Four Decades in the Making

Morgan & Son Earthmoving was founded in 1957 by Dan and Laurie’s grandfather, John Morgan. But the family’s connection to central Washington, and to the area’s rivers and forests, goes back further, to John’s father-in-law, a German immigrant named August Thisius, who owned and operated a number of businesses in the area in the 1920s, including a lumberyard and sawmill.

When John Morgan married August’s daughter, Lillian, he went to work for his father-in-law – just as log hauling and road clearing by horse was giving way to machines. It was John Morgan who bought the family’s first Cat machine – a Caterpillar Thirty – to help pull the grader his father-in-law used to carve out timber roads. John owned the first Caterpillar tractor in the Yakima Valley.  The family has been loyal customers of Caterpillar ever since.

“When you’ve got something that works, you stick with it,” Dan says.

Dan and Laurie took control of the business from their parents, Pat and Helen Morgan, in 2006. “But we still rely on them for their advice,” Laurie says. Like their mom and dad, who ran the company for more than three decades, the siblings share responsibility for running the firm. Dan, like his dad Pat, focuses on operations. Laurie, like her mom Helen, focuses on the finances.

Dan and Laurie grew up watching their parents continue the family tradition of building logging roads. But the travails of the forest products industry, coupled with the passage in 1999 of the Salmon Recovery Act, changed all that. “You’re not going to survive doing logging roads anymore,” Dan says.

The law, designed to make it easier for salmon and steelhead to migrate up and down the state’s estuaries, requires that all private and public roads and bridges in the state that present a barrier to the fish either be improved or de-commissioned.

It created “a lot of work for us,” Dan says – often on familiar roads. “Last summer we did the first road our dad built out here when we were little kids,” Laurie says.

“Back then,” Dan explains, “they would put a culvert in streams to get the roads and bridges in and to get the logs out. It’s just the way things were done. Now, with the millions of studies they’ve done, they’ve determined that the size of pipe that was commonly used back then doesn’t allow for fish passage. So we’ll go in and either upgrade the roads or just dismantle them.”

Pat says the motor on this eight-decade-old Caterpillar Thirty – Tractor No. S8010 according to the factory stamp on it – still turns over.

Fixing Damage Caused By a Flood

This summer, as Washington suffered a drought that reduced flows of rivers and streams in the state to historic lows and ignited dozens wildfires, Morgan & Son found itself repairing an old timber road along the Taneum Creek in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest on the eastern slope of the Cascade Range.

The narrow road, now owned by the U.S. Forest Service, had been damaged a few years back when floodwaters roared through the area, washing out a rock retaining wall installed to protect its banks and taking out a traffic lane.

Tanuem Creek doesn’t look like much – especially during a summer drought. But during the spring melt its waters, which flow down through the Yakima and Columbia Rivers into the Pacific Ocean, can race through here at 3,000 cubic feet per second. And for spawning salmon and trout, it’s Lovers Lane.

The fix required Morgan & Son to stabilize the creek’s banks by dismantling what was left of the old retaining wall and installing a new one.

The first order of business was dewatering the creek by diverting its waters, which were flowing through at 10 to 15 cubic feet per second despite the drought.

“We’ve done it before of course,” Dan says. “But every project is different. Sometimes it makes more sense to pipe and pump the diverted water. But we were going to be in here for a long enough time that it didn’t make sense to pump – it was too costly. So we went with the diversion.”

The lighter than normal winter snowpack, coupled with the driest May-to-July on record and soaring summer temperatures, would prove to be a double-edged sword. While it made the dewatering job a little easier, the wildfires it ignited added to the costs – and complexity – of the project.

The heavy lifting on the site was performed by two hydraulic excavators: a Cat 325 that Dan has relied on for years and a one-year-old Cat 316.

“It’s an impressive machine,” Dan says of the 316, which he bought after initially leasing it for six months from NC Machinery, his local Cat dealer.

“We can do a lot work with the 316 that, in the past, we would have needed at least a 320 or 325 to do – and it does it with a lot better fuel efficiency, which is great. And of course the operators love it because it’s got air conditioning and a stereo and a back camera -- all that good stuff. Sometimes I can’t get them out of it.”

By the first week of September, despite the complications, Morgan and his crew were out of the creek bed, now reinforced with a new gabion wall, and wrapping up work on the restored road.

But a smaller job up the creek that the company hoped to tackle had to be put on hold because of the fire danger.

“I bid this job last July and I had all winter to worry about it. So it should have been a piece of cake,” Dan says.

“But no matter how much you plan in this business, things change and you have to adapt.” 

Morgan calls the Cat® 316 Hydraulic Excavator “an impressive machine.”

5 Tips to Right-Size Your Fleet

Did you add equipment when the economy was booming—and are you now wondering if your fleet is the right size for the work at hand? These five tips can help you evaluate your fleet’s efficiency.

Learn More

316E Excavator

Quick, powerful and up to 8 percent more fuel efficient than its predecessor, the new 316E works productively and economically in many applications.

View Product