View from the stump
By David Elstone
December 23, 2015 - That freshly cut stump that I stepped upon just under a year ago when I took on the role to advocate for timber harvesting contractors in coastal B.C. has begun to turn a silvery gray. Amongst the many things I have learned about my contractor members, one standout trait is – as entrepreneurs – they are able to adapt to change.
By David Elstone
Over the last decade, from a peak in U.S. lumber demand in 2005 to the depths of the global economic recession in 2009, and then the meteoric rise and retrenching of Chinese demand, contractors have modified what they do to sustain their businesses. However, while market trends may seem to be short lived, there is a more inherent trend facing our forest industry. It’s one that we have little choice but to adapt to – the move to harvesting on steeper slopes.
Empirical data to describe the move away from the valley bottoms to steeper slopes is not readily available. However, timber supply analysis by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations does frame up a working theory. For the last three years the Crown-land timber harvest has averaged 14.5 million m3, with an allowable annual cut (AAC) of 16.2 million m3. These harvests have targeted higher value species and second growth. For example, the harvest of coastal stands less than 100 years in age has represented approximately 30 per cent of the entire volume cut on the B.C. coast.
To maintain that AAC well into the future, harvesting across the landscape needs to take place on steeper slopes, at higher elevations and must utilize all species – including timber types that hold lower economic opportunities. In other words, we need to access those higher elevation, decadent hem-bal (hemlock-balsam) stands that challenge our industry from both marketing and delivered log cost perspectives.
Hemlock has been a perennial challenge for the B.C. coast. Japan’s decline in “baby-square” (4”x4” lumber) demand brought the issue to the forefront in the 1990s. Log marketers capitalized on the wave of Chinese demand for hem-bal logs and lumber over the last few years, but that market has retrenched. And within the last 12 months, the Neucel dissolving pulp mill and the newsprint machine at Paper Excellence’s Howe Sound mill – both huge consumers of pulp logs – have sat idle. Whatever market use is developed for hem-bal, it is unlikely to afford much latitude for contractors on margins.
Adapting for a much broader deployment onto those steeper slopes will mean potential modifications for equipment and practices, all within the context of managing delivered log costs. The ground-based, highly mechanized iron used in the last decade in second growth Douglas-fir stands may not align itself well for steep slopes from production and safety standpoints. However, technological innovations point in the direction of ongoing reliance on machines versus a move back to ground crews swarming across the slopes with chokers.
Innovation from New Zealand has got the attention of the coastal industry. Can it work here? Likely there are many crossover applications, but terrain and how we harvest timber does differ to a degree from the folks in the southern hemisphere.
One question that has been raised is why innovation has been underdeveloped in our region? Contractors point to weak rates of return for their businesses as one of those hurdles. But there are other reasons why incentives are not apparent. Panelists will tackle the issues of steep slope work at our 73rd Annual TLA Convention & Trade Show, which has been designed to evoke discussion and support a continued effort to work together in the coastal forest industry. The convention theme is aptly named “Adapting to Steep Change” and will take place from Jan. 13 to 15, 2016 in Vancouver. For more information, visit www.tla.ca/convention.
David Elstone – David is the executive director of the Truck Loggers Association