Timber supply crunch drives loggers to more dangerous terrain

Higher-cost steep slope logging touted as solution to diminishing wood supply 
Steep grades require costly, specialized equipment like this yarder | Red Toque Creative Photo

Logging contractors in B.C. are caught in a dilemma.


With easy-access timber pretty much used up, they are logging in increasingly challenging terrain, including steep slopes that had previously been bypassed because they’re too steep for traditional machinery.


A relatively new approach to operating on steep slopes is tethered, winch-assist logging, which has solved the access problem. It is being used with success in places like New Zealand, contractors were told at a Truck Loggers Association (TLA) conference held in Vancouver January 13-15.


B.C. logging contractors say they have no choice but to follow New Zealand’s example.


“The land base is being stretched and the areas which we’ve been avoiding in the past, we can no longer do that, or we’re just not going to have a land base to operate on,” said Reid Hedlund, owner of Mid-Boundary Contracting.


Steep-slope logging doesn’t necessarily mean going higher in altitude. Even lower down on a mountainside, usable stands of timber are often left standing adjacent to logged areas because the trees grow on slopes too steep for falling and yarding machines.


Some steep-slope harvesting is done using heli-logging, which targets high-value timber in smaller patches. But that leaves behind a lot of other timber that could have been logged had fallers and yarders been able to operate in the steeper terrain. 


“Major tenure holders recognize that they now have to go back into these areas that have been bypassed to try to find a way to do it, first of all safely and then cost-efficiently,” Hedlund said.


“It’s the future of the forest industry,” said Kelway Cox, owner of Mountain Forestry Ltd. “Moving to these steep-slope harvesters lets us access more timber more economically and is more environmentally sensitive.”


But tenure holders – mostly the big forestry companies – might have to start paying their contractors more because there are cost and safety issues associated with steep-grade logging.


“Going higher means more expenses,” said TLA executive director David Elstone. “Steeper slopes also means greater safety concerns.”


B.C. has been lagging behind New Zealand and northern European countries when it comes to innovation in the steep-slope field. Only a few B.C. contractors, most of them on Vancouver Island, have been using winch-assist logging to get at timber on steeper slopes.


“History will show that our supply chain almost has a 1960s mentality,” Elstone said. “We’re on the cusp of major innovations that are happening around the world but we’re not necessarily fostering that on the B.C. coast, and you’ve got to ask why that isn’t necessarily happening.”


Innovation could deliver better returns, but there are big upfront costs. The specialized equipment needed for winch-assisted logging costs between $1 million and $2.5 million. Many B.C. contractors might be unable to make that kind of investment. A rebound in the forestry sector has not trickled down to the independent contractors who fall and haul logs for the tenure holders. Based on equipment auctions in 2015, Elstone estimates six B.C. contractors either downsized or went out of business last year.


Elstone suspects some of the recent exits were by older operators who have decided to retire early, rather than stay in a business that is no longer profitable. And younger loggers say they don’t get paid enough to make the kind of investments they need to make.


“We’ve seen that a lot of the major licensees and tenure holders out there have made good returns over the last number of years since the rebound in our industry,” Elstone said. “But there’s definitely a disparity of business returns in that the contractors haven’t seen that upside.”

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