Winters aren't what they used to be—a simple fact that is impacting the forest industry

By Jim Stirling

The editorial focus of Logging and Sawmilling Journal is change.

Some stories relate how new forest machines are working out in the bush for logging contractors. Others might inform readers how a new generation of log breakdown equipment is contributing to a sawmill’s production, quality of product and bottom line.

But another and fundamental kind of change has gradually become apparent and inserted its influence in central regions of British Columbia…It’s called winter. Regional winters aren’t what they used to be. They’re generally not as long nor as cold, for a range of debatable reasons. But what winters have become—their prime characteristic, if you will—is unpredictable. And it’s throwing forest activity planning for a loop, with all kinds of complicating implications.

A forest industry year in Prince George, for example, once followed a predictable pattern. There was comfort in that despite each season delivering its share of quirks to complicate the harvesting and delivery of timber, the sawmills could maintain steady production year ‘round and meet customer demands.

The annual cycle was unofficially structured around spring break-up. That was the time of year when most harvesting and log hauling stopped while the strengthening sun sucked frost from the ground. It was time for loggers’ to catch their collective breaths. It was time when they could finally get around to postponed equipment repairs and replacement.

Break-up afforded the opportunity to meet the kids again, placate the bankers and negotiate with licencees. And maybe go somewhere warm for a while. The summer logging season followed as the bush dried out, hopefully before the forest fire season ramped up. Then after freeze-up in the mid-late fall, it was back into high gear for the winter season and getting in the wood for another year.

That’s the way it was. But no more. Break-up has become an unreliable casualty. It no longer adheres to the calendar. What was once an April-May fixture may now occur in February. And when break-up does happen, it’s usually much shorter.

The unpredictability presents logistical challenges in the bush and mill in everything from fibre flow to forest pest insurgence.

But the change does have an upside. They may be unpredictable, but the logging seasons are blurring closer to year ‘round operation, which means steadier work for loggers each calendar year. This is proving an influential factor in recruiting ‘new’ skilled workers.

When the oil patch in Alberta and northeastern B.C. was booming, it seduced significant numbers of forest workers to their camps, according to considerable if anecdotal evidence. The energy sector, through its various facets, offered top money and benefits year ‘round, beyond the competitive ability of the forest industry to match or even get close. 
For forest workers with financial obligations, necessity became the mother of migration.

Now, though, the energy industry is on its knees and the big money’s gone. All of a sudden, the bush and the mill don’t look so bad: a longer working year AND home cooking every night proves very persuasive.

A generally warming climate is changing other aspects of how the forest industry goes about its work. The warmer, shorter winters are often coupled with low snowpacks. Then add in at least 10 million hectares of land in the B.C. Interior covered in dead pine trees left by the beetle epidemic.

For good measure, supplement the extremes of weather that are becoming the norm. Wilder storms with stronger and more erratic winds are more frequent.

Many observers are surprised the region hasn’t already experienced more catastrophic wildfires. Forest fires in Slave Lake and Fort McMurray this spring provide graphic examples of what surely awaits the B.C. Interior. Like a massive earthquake off the B.C. coast, it’s when—not if.

Efforts have been made in some interior locations to ‘fireproof’ communities by removing flammable materials between the last subdivision and the forest. It’s expensive work and the task’s difficulty is amplified when the direction of attack is unknown. The doctrine according to the wisdom of traditional prevailing winds is becoming suspect. When fire risk is high in an area, log harvesting is restricted or curtailed, affecting wood deliveries to the mills. When forest fires are burning, the forest industry, its equipment and local knowledge are co-opted to become invaluable tools for the fire boss trying to contain the blaze.

Wildfire is indiscriminate. It might remove swathes of dead pine trees, which some observers consider the only practical method to rehabilitate a changed landscape. But fires will also take out the spruce, fir, young pine that escaped the beetle and the deciduous species. And that will only exacerbate a timber supply crunch for the interior forest industry and the communities dependent upon it.

The first European immigrants here figured the forests were inexhaustible. We now know better, especially in the context of legitimate uses aside from the forest industry’s. One of the biggest changes may yet become how effective the forest industry becomes in protecting and enhancing what remaining lands it can access.

It’s stating the obvious, but without sufficient marketable-sized trees in the region to sustain a forest industry, new machine and equipment developments aren’t as interesting.

Logging and Sawmilling Journal
May/June 2016

On the Cover:
On the B.C. Coast, it’s about getting the wood to the water, but before it hits the water, it needs to be harvested in the woods. And this September will see the full range of harvesting equipment working at the DEMO 2016 show being held in Maple Ridge, B.C. Please see the preview story on DEMO, beginning on page 28 of this issue. (Photo of B.C. dryland sort by Paul MacDonald).

Beetle attack: but this time it’s the spruce beetle
As if the B.C. Interior has not been hit hard enough by the mountain pine beetle, there have been recent increases in the spruce beetle population in the Central Interior of B.C. Details on what is being done to fight/contain the latest scourge in the forests.

Sawmill muscle
EACOM Timber partnered with equipment supplier Autolog to optimize the company’s Val D’Or and Timmins sawmills, achieving value uplift at both operations, strengthening them and giving them more market resilience.

Logging partners in profit
An award-winning logging partnership between the Quatsino First Nation and Western Forest Products on the B.C. Coast is delivering efficiencies—and profits—to the two partners.

A (sawmill) offer you can’t refuse
Weyerhaeuser Canada made Alberta sawmill owner Guido Unger a (good) offer he couldn’t refuse: the purchase of a used USNR line that will allow his sawmill to ramp up production considerably.

Coming in September: DEMO 2016
Full details on the upcoming largest logging equipment show in Canada this year: DEMO 2016, being held in Maple Ridge, B.C. from Sept. 22-24, with all of the major logging equipment manufacturers represented.

Hands-on harvesting approach
Nova Scotia logger John Dorey has been recognized by the Canadian Woodlands Forum for his hands-on approach to meeting the needs of woodlands clients, and excelling at partial harvesting.

Getting more control over log hauling
Weyerhaeuser’s Grande Prairie, Alberta timberlands operation is phasing in more tire pressure-controlled equipped log haul trucks, allowing them to increase their access on steep logging roads, even in bad weather.

Variable Tire Pressure Control 101: What are its benefits?

More chips to go...
New Brunswick’s Billy and Ronnie Gillespie are innovators when it comes to their chipping operation

Urban logging in Alberta
Alberta’s Shawn Moore has moved beyond the oil patch, and his tree removal business has now morphed into doing urban logging—and they’re diverting trees from the landfill.

The Edge
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre and Alberta Innovates - Bio Solutions.

The Last Word
Winters aren’t what they used to be, and that simple fact is impacting the forest industry, says Jim Stirling.

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