By Tony Kryzanowski
Saskatchewan’s NorSask Forest Products has a lot riding on rebounding from a recent fire and learning to survive in today’s reality of living with new tariffs on U.S. bound softwood lumber, given its reputation as Canada’s only major 100 per cent indigenous-owned sawmill.
Currently, about 70 per cent of its production is shipped to the United States. Like many other sawmills in Canada, what’s helping the sawmill weather the impact of new U.S. softwood lumber tariffs are higher lumber prices due to a robust housing market south of the border.
This past January, on one of the coldest days of the year with the wind chill registering close to -50 degrees Celsius, the sawmill suffered a fire just as the morning shift started work. The fire started in the slasher/debarker area. It was under control within six hours and completely out within 24 hours, with good local fire fighting support.
However, as a result of the fire, lumber production was severely curtailed as three of the sawmill’s four debarkers were put out of commission, resulting in significant staff reductions, going from 102 employees before the fire down to about 42 employees now. The impact was also felt in the bush, as logging operations were put on temporary hold until the full extent of the fire’s impact was assessed.
In short order, management and staff drafted a plan to maintain some production by using a mobile transportation method to deliver logs from the log deck to the area housing the one remaining debarker. They managed to maintain some sawmill production as insurance inspectors sorted through the rubble and the company drafted plans to rebuild the front end.
By late spring, the $21 million front end reconstruction project was well underway, with the goal of being back into full production by early October.
NorSask General Manager Ken Petteplace has used this time to advance what has been an ongoing process to further solidify the financial health of the business, to ensure that it has a long term future.
“Ken and his team have taken a hard look at what could be an even better future,” says Al Balisky, President of Meadow Lake Tribal Council Industrial Investments. “So what was a real hardship event and misfortune, we have transitioned through and are now looking at the future. It’s our intention to give the mill a new lease on life and the rebuild is going to be a great new asset. The overarching philosophy from the tribal council is that the place has to make money.”
The primary goal of the front end reconstruction project is to achieve much greater optimization, with improved alignment of the infeed with the sawmill.
The BID Group and its Comact division are working with NorSask to redesign and install the sawmill’s new front end. This includes an array of conveyors, wave feeders, and sorting bins, as well as the installation of two VKB 22” dual ring debarkers. Each line will have a single-saw slasher system with a moveable bumper. Every log will be measured and trimmed to precise lengths.
Petteplace says that the goal is to create identical infeed lines with the same equipment to standardize equipment, parts and throughput as much as possible. In the mill, decks leading to the canters are being lowered and four new wave feeders added for better log flow to the sawmill’s three production lines.
Milltron Electric of Prince George, B.C., is providing all the electrical work, including installation of scanning equipment and electronic controls.
For the past two decades, NorSask has been solely owned by the Meadow Lake Tribal Council (MLTC). Both the sawmill and its complementary woodlands operations provide a high level of aboriginal employment. There is about 60 per cent indigenous employment in the sawmill and 95 per cent in trucking operations. Overall, Saskatchewan boasts the highest percentage of indigenous involvement in the forestry sector of any jurisdiction in Canada at about 30 per cent, with the next highest being Manitoba, with only about 10 per cent.
Prior to the fire, the sawmill was on track to produce about 120 million board feet of softwood lumber, primarily in 2 X 4 and 2 X 6 dimensional lumber that measures 9’ long. Logs are sourced from the Mistik Management Forest Management Area (FMA) and from the Prince Albert FMA, with the sawmill consuming about 500,000 cubic metres per year. The logs average about 10” in diameter, consisting of both spruce and jackpine.
Not only is it 100 per cent indigenous-owned, but the operation is also the longest continuous operating sawmill in Saskatchewan. It curtailed production during the 2008 to 2010 industry downturn, but never halted production completely.
“Prior to the downturn, the (MLTC) Chiefs aggressively paid down the debt,” says Richard Gladue, a Meadow Lake Tribal Council Industrial Investments board director and past MLTC Tribal Chief. “So we were able to operate during the downturn.”
After 2008, however, MLTC took a close look at its management structure and took steps to bring overall management in NorSask and its other investments—which includes two trucking companies and forest management service provider, Mistik Management—under one umbrella. This resulted in NorSask’s dedicated management board being dissolved in 2013 and the creation of Meadow Lake Tribal Council Industrial Investments Inc. Gladue says the new eight-member board provides MLTC with greater direct oversight of its investments. One of its immediate goals was to transition the sawmill out of survival mode, which like many other sawmills in Canada became necessary during the downturn. The board identified the need to invest some much-needed capital into the sawmill.
“There has been a focus on the mill, with about $15 million in capital spent post-downturn, aimed at maintenance of the business,” says Balisky. He adds that this capital spending was essential, particularly in newer technology, as the sawmill was originally built in 1971.
“Sawmills are no longer labourers and a couple of circular saws,” he says. “Everything now is high tech, highly computerized and highly optimized.”
In the sawmill, scanning has been upgraded by Optimil on one of the sawmill’s three breakdown lines to improve recovery, particularly of more sideboards. It has led to about a seven per cent improvement in recovery on that line alone, and an overall recovery improvement of about two per cent.
As part of their revitalization project, NorSask hired Wellons to re-skin and rebuild one of their dry kilns. NorSask also added a dry kiln by dismantling, transporting and rebuilding a dry kiln from a shuttered Ontario mill, which increased their kiln capacity from three to four. Considerable investment has been made in the planer mill, with installation of a new VAB computerized lumber grader, as well as a Carbotech trimmer, bin sorting system and stacker, with computer programming provided by DO2.
“I would say that over the past year, we have finally got it so that we are more consistent and comfortable with the VAB grader,” says Petteplace.
On the NorSask project, DO2 Controle did the integration of the new VAB optimizer and the controls of the new trimmer and sorter at the planer mill. The company also did the controls on the new electrical double forks stacker. They supplied all PLCs, VFDs and the servo cabinet for the project. DO2 Controle can build all electrical panels and are specialists in PLC controls, VFDs, servos, camera applications, sorting systems, tracking systems, PLC-5 upgrades, HMI, operator stations and tally systems.
One of Petteplace’s priorities since his arrival has been to streamline operations, and identify obvious areas where there is room for improvement, including helping employees gain a better understanding of the business side of the operation and how their actions can influence outcomes.
Petteplace says he has noticed a change in the culture and mindset of employees in this regard, and it is a work in progress. He adds that there is no doubt—based on the effort he has witnessed—that there is a willingness on the part of all employees to pitch in where necessary to maintain as much production as possible through this reconstruction phase, with the goal of ramping up to full production as soon as possible.
In terms of the recent reconstruction of the sawmill’s front end, Gladue says that is only the start, as management is now evaluating what sort of improvements can be made to the back end to complement whatever benefits are achieved through redesign and reconstruction of the infeed area. The front end project was designed as a long term solution to whatever improvements come about over time further downstream.
He adds that the overall review of the business continues, with ongoing evaluation of the entire supply chain from forest management and logging to manufacturing and transportation of finished products.
What’s helping to drive this overall evaluation is the reallocation of Weyerhaeuser’s massive FMA tied to what was Weyerhaeuser’s pulp mill near Prince Albert, with a high percentage of that forest resource being reallocated to a number of First Nations communities. While MLTC benefitted from this reallocation, Gladue says now there are now “more players in the game”, requiring MLTC to negotiate new alliances to develop fibre supply agreements to support the sawmill.
Meadow Lake Tribal Council Industrial Investments is also still very interested in the potential development of a bioenergy project involving power generation from wood waste near to the NorSask sawmill. Discussion of this project has been ongoing for at least the past five years.
“We have been diligent and persistent in trying to get that project across the finish line,” says Balisky, adding that they are “very close” to achieving an arrangement with SaskPower on a bioenergy power supply agreement, which would be tied to wood waste supply agreements with all five forest companies active in the area. NorSask still disposes of its wood waste in a beehive burner. He adds that this green power project would have a significant positive financial impact on northwestern Saskatchewan.
On the Cover:
While others shy away from oilpatch logging, Alberta's JD Haggart Contracting pursues this business for one simple reason—it pays better and they have the experience to be able to mobilize quickly when an opportunity comes their way. They also have the equipment to deliver the wood, including two John Deere 2154 processor carriers, both equipped with Waratah heads. Read all about the operation beginning on page 10 of this issue. (Cover photo by Tony Kryzanowski)
Balancing out the forestry workplace
There’s a movement underway to encourage more women to work in the forest industry, and it’s getting some solid traction from forest company Tolko Industries—and full support from women who are now working in the industry.
Ability and availability = logging success
Alberta logging contractor JD Haggart—managed by the husband and wife team of Dave and Roxanne Haggart—know that ability and availability are keys to logging success, especially in oilpatch logging.
Front end focus following mill fire
Saskatchewan’s NorSask Forest Products is bouncing back from a fire that hit its sawmill earlier this year, and has invested $21 million on a major front end redesign following the fire.
Bringing on the next generation...
Nova Scotia’s Sebastien Pouliot knew he wanted to be a logger at a very young age—and he’s now successfully ushering in a new generation of equipment operators, through a training program.
Salvage logging in B.C.—but this time it's for burned wood
Forest companies and logging contractors are getting ready to go into salvage mode big-time to tackle the burned timber from the worst fire season B.C. has ever seen. It’s been estimated that about 53 million cubic metres of timber has been burned, about four times the provincial allowable annual cut.
Paul Hargrave and his son, Scott, have a passion for sawmilling—and for race cars, too, since they have a combination sawmill/speedway operation on B.C.’s Vancouver Island.
Team logging effort
The husband and wife team that manages Ontario’s St. Onge logging has been successful in directing their operations through the industry’s rocky times—and now has a very successful chipping operation, and recently started logging for EACOM and Weyerhaeuser.
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, Alberta Innovates and Alberta Agriculture.
The Last Word
Jim Stirling on B.C.’s wildest wildfire season, and looking at how to prevent a repeat performance.