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Logger Mark Donahue, 32, who runs a logging business out of Morehead, cuts down a large ash tree with one clean slice. He just started a job on this property near Maysville, where he estimates he will eventually clear more than 4 million feet of timber over the span of a year and half.

A cut above

story by Brooke Warren

In an empty log yard, one man maneuvers a loader. Only the engine rumble and headlights pierce the night. He slides the machine's forks under a pile of logs on a semi truck and lifts them to a bare patch of ground where they bump together in a row.

It's after 10 p.m. and he has been working since sunrise. Most of Mark Donahue's days are like this.

From a young age, Mark knew he wanted to be a logger. He picked up a chainsaw when he was 11, and he started logging for his dad's company when he was 14. Just before his 16th birthday, he quit high school, and he has been working ever since. Now 32, he works six days a week supplying timber to log buyers.

“My mom and dad preached that if a man don’t work he’s not worth nothing,” Mark says.

So he leaves home early and comes home late, cutting and hauling logs from across the county and beyond. Mark walks through the woods, assessing the thickness and quality of ash, maple, white oak and other trees. He pauses at a thick ash, maybe 30 inches in diameter, whose branches reach into the fiery foliage above. Gazing up the straight trunk, he estimates it extends 12 feet before branching off.

"At 80 cents a foot, I can get $405.60 out of that single tree," he says.

He angles his cuts so the tree drops between smaller saplings he wants to leave standing. After his last slice, a few pops, creaks and a heaping crash reverberate through the forest. The tree is down, and he continues, chopping off the top, then moves on to the next one, hour after hour. Mark works constantly because he wants to give his wife and five children a good life.

He says supporting his family is what drives him to keep going, but because he's always on the job, he rarely spends time at home. His work ethic pays off, though. He says he doesn't struggle to find jobs. His phone rings throughout the day with people asking him for work or to clear their land. Customers come to him because they know they can trust him to do the job efficiently and pay them fairly.

Some days he pulls half a dozen loads out of the woods. He gives landowners up to 40 percent of the logs' value. And at the end of the day, after he has hauled tons of wood, Mark will help a friend move hay, or stop by his grandmother's house to load her fireplace.

“Mark is as good a fellow as you’ll ever find," says Josh Utterback, one of Mark's contractors. "He’d give you the shirt off his back at three o' clock in the morning if you needed it.”  

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With sawdust spewing, Mark cuts limbs off a felled ash tree. Ash trees are threatened by an invasive beetle, the emerald ash borer, so he is clearing dead trees afflicted by the insect while harvesting wood for lumber.

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Mark scopes out trees big enough to harvest in a forest adjacent to a field he has finished clearing. Once he finds a stand with the highest density of trees to log, he'll clear a gap in the woods to remove them.

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The back of Mark's truck is filled to the brim with chainsaws, tools, leftover Mountain Dew and refuse from work.

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After felling an old ash tree, Mark takes a break from handling his heavy chainsaw. He traveled an hour north to Maysville several times in one week to log the property.

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Natasha Donahue says goodbye to her husband, Mark, after giving him cash from a prior job. She manages the money side of his business, which supports their family of seven.

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After dropping off a check to Judy Stevens, whose land he started logging in August, Mark talks with her about the job, which he did almost single-handedly. After some long days, she would hear his log truck at 4 a.m.

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Buyer Tom Goldie measures a load of Mark's logs to calculate how much to pay him. The haul, which filled Mark's truck, came from only three red oak trees. He got about $1,600 from the load.

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Mark waits for his truck to warm up before hauling a load of logs back to Morehead. When he harvests logs, he only cuts the largest trees, leaving younger ones to grow until they are more valuable. "Timber is like a human: It needs to reach its full potential and mature before it's harvested," he says.

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After felling trees until sunset, Mark supervises Josh Utterback, who he grew up with, as he loads the truck they will take back to Morehead.