By Paul MacDonald
The next generation of the family is gradually taking the reins at logging operation Van Ommen Contracting—and they are taking on some pretty steep ground these days in B.C.’s Eagle River region, in the province’s Southern Interior.
Kelly Van Ommen, who’s 27, is taking over operation of the logging contracting operation from his father, John Van Ommen. He’s helped by his brother, Tyson, 31, who works as a feller buncher operator, and tree faller, when required—and the two of them do just about everything else on the logging side.
This marks the third generation of the Van Ommen family to work in B.C.’s forest industry. When he was younger, John worked for his father’s sawmilling operation in Salmon Arm, B.C., before striking out on his own in logging.
John says he was kind of surprised that Kelly, a gifted musician, has become involved in the logging business. “I really never saw that coming,” he says.
“One day, I was sitting at the kitchen table, talking with my wife, Carol, about how I wished I could find a loader operator for some right-of-way work,” John recalls. “And Kelly asked how much it paid—and he started working for us shortly after that—and has stayed.”
John himself started out in the woods when he was a teenager, doing bucking. “Back then, I dreamed about having my own chainsaw. When I got that, I thought it would be nice to have a pick-up, and then a skidder. It kind of grew from there.”
It was close to a decade of working for others before John bought his first machine. But he gained valuable experience running loaders and skidders on the logging side, and construction equipment on the roadbuilding side. Van Ommen Contracting today has both a logging side, and roadbuilding side, working in the Monashee Mountains, around the small community of Malakwa, about 50 kilometres west of Revelstoke.
In the mid-1990s, he bought his first Cat machine, a used Cat 225 excavator.
Further Cat equipment was to come.
“One winter, we had a whole bunch of wood that had been felled ahead of us in high elevation spruce country—and it had snowed and snowed—and then it snowed some more. You could hardly see the tree branches sticking out of the snow.
“And Finning had this new Cat 527 machine, with a swing grapple. I thought we should try that, and we brought one up, and it worked so well, we kept it. And a year later, we bought another one.”
These days, the operation is medium-sized, with about half-a-dozen employees in logging, and three in roadbuilding. Keeping it modest in size is a goal.
“At one point,” says John, “I had 25 guys working for me, but it was too much. It was a lot of extra work, long hours—and little pay.”
The connection to Cat equipment, and Cat dealer Finning, continues to this day for Van Ommen Contracting, though the operation now has a fair bit of Tigercat equipment, as well. In fact, the operation bought the fourth tracked buncher that Tigercat ever built.
“There are some great machines out there,” says John. “Everyone makes good equipment, but it all eventually needs fixing, and needs parts. So it’s really all in the service, who can fix your equipment and get it running again.”
In addition to using the services of the dealers—Finning, and Inland, which handles Tigercat, both have branches in Vernon—Van Ommen Contracting also has its own mechanic, who works for them on a seasonal basis.
They run things pretty lean, explains John, so they need their equipment up and operating. “We do hot logging, with the skidder skidding directly to the processor. We don’t have much of a wood supply buffer. Basically, if the skidder is down, we’re out of wood within a day.”
That situation is usually due to the steep ground that they operate in—the landings are small. “We don’t have a lot of room to build landings,” says John.
“Sometimes we might be ahead, in the bunching, but that is rare.”
If they were working elsewhere in B.C., in flatter ground, they could stockpile wood, and the various operations could be more phased, and independent—rather than being interdependent. “Our equipment really has to work together—and we work hard at doing that.”
Working in this part of B.C.’s Southern Interior for Louisiana-Pacific, which has mill operations further east, in Golden, Van Ommen Contracting has always had to contend with steep ground. It’s just a fact of logging life in this part of the province. But they are now working in even steeper ground, says John.
“So, we’re doing it differently now,” he explains. “We used to do hand falling, then hoe chuck the wood and trail everything. Now, with tilting bunchers, and hoe chuckers, we can take on bigger and steeper areas, and move the wood down to one spot, rather than having to trail everything. That’s how we got into tethered equipment.”
First came a Cat 552 with Cat’s Satco boom and felling head. “We knew as soon as we demo’ed the Cat machine with Satco boom and directional felling head that we could use that machine in our country, that it would be a big help.”
The Cat 552 Series 2 is a full tail swing machine designed for high production clear cut and for clear or select cut in rough terrain. It is also a leveling machine for more comfort on steep terrain.
On the 552, a Cat C9 ACERT engine delivers 303 hp of power. The C9 has a proven track record of reliability and durability in the woods. A high capacity cooling system and on-demand reversing fan help to optimize performance, durability and fuel efficiency.
The 552 features the Cat PRO (Parallel Reach Operation) System, which gives operators the ability to complete a smoother, more fluid harvesting motion. One joystick either extends or retracts the work tool by combining both the main and stick boom functions. For feller buncher configurations, the head is kept level as well. By combining these functions in one joystick, the operator can efficiently move the head in a planar, parallel motion relative to the ground.
The machines also have enhanced power management software tailored for the unique engine-hydraulic interactions in a forestry application.
To help best utilize the 552, the Van Ommen operation purchased a ROB tethered steep slope logging system.
Both John and Kelly attended the Steep Slope Logging Conference, organized by Logging and Sawmilling Journal, in 2016. “We saw the ROB set up, and we figured we could use one of those, too.”
For those not familiar with it, the ROB system is the Remote Operated Bulldozer (ROB) winch assist system developed by New Zealand-based logging contractors Rosewarne and May. Vancouver Island logger Lyle Newton of Island Pacific Equipment Ltd., purchased a ROB system several years back, and liked it so much he agreed to become the North American distributor for the system.
With the system, the ROB is mounted on a dozer, equipped with hydrostatic drive, which assists with feeding of cable through the twin-winch systems. The cable is fed through fairleads that, in Van Ommen Contracting’s case, lead down to the Cat 552.
At this point, they are using the ROB system in niche ground conditions—they need to find the right area, but when they do, it works well.
“There are certain areas in the block that it can be used—we’re learning that, and Louisiana-Pacific, who we work for, is learning that, too.” L-P has been working with them, reviewing maps to determine where the ROB system can best be used. John emphasized that the locations they work in have to be feasible, equipment-wise—and just as importantly, cost-wise.
“This equipment is costly, and we need so many dollars per cubic metre, or we can’t do it.”
The use of such expensive systems and equipment reinforces the need for licencees and contractors to work together, he added. “That is key, deciding where a system or equipment can best be used for the benefit of the contractor and the licencee.”
John added that L-P faces some challenges in that they have a small cut, about 150,000 cubic metres, in the Okanagan Timber Supply Area. “It can be difficult to find areas where the tethered machine works efficiently.”
Tolko and Interfor, which also operate in the Southern Interior, have larger tracts of land, and larger cuts, to work with.
Added to that, this area is traditionally steep slope, as mentioned earlier. “It’s always been tough ground, the rocks are bigger, the ground is steeper, and the trees have more rot. Our costs are higher, and the production is lower. Almost anywhere near here, it’s better. We see all logging conditions—but that’s all right, that’s what we have to work with.”
John says that they’ve been using the ROB more steadily in the last six months. If they can’t find the right ground to use it in for L-P, there are other companies, such as Tolko, that are interested in hiring it out. They’ve done some work for Tolko in steep ground around Lumby, on the edge of the Monashee Mountains. The timber could not be yarded there; it had to be logged using a steep slope system—or by helicopter.
“That worked out well,” says John. “It was a good learning experience.”
That particular block saw Van Ommen Contracting set up the ROB tether system roadside, and Tolko arranged for its own crew.
“Tolko helped us out there. We couldn’t take our crew from Malakwa and move them for the smaller jobs for Tolko. The tethered equipment wasn’t committed to anything else at the time, so it worked out. And Tolko has talked about having us back to do some more.”
John reports that Lyall Newton and the ROB people have been very helpful in getting them up to speed. “They sent their best operator to us for a few days when we first started working with the system. We had some small issues with the hydraulic pump heating up, but they looked after it all. They’ve been really good to deal with.”
Their Cat 552 has been good, too, reports John. The demo machine they bought did not have a live heel, so it took some time to get that engineered and built. But they’ve had good support from Cat and Finning, along the way.
“They wanted to get it right with the heel,” says John. “They had done the heel before, but the issue was that there was only one cylinder running the heel, and there was not enough power. With this heel, they put on two cylinders and put them on top of the sticks. So it’s now got a lot of lifting power—and you need that when you’re hoe chucking.”
John noted that they did their homework before they invested in the new ROB equipment and system, and there were quite a few considerations.
“There are so many different options and systems, and you can debate it back and forth. But we had to make a choice, and we thought a two-line tethered system would be better, so we went with the ROB.” At some point, he added, you make the best decision you can, and then work from there to incorporate the equipment into the logging operation.
They have a fairly large road system—about 1,200 kilometres, including spur road—to work with, with the L-P land, and it can involve some moving around. Half of the land is around Malakwa, and about half is north of Revelstoke, to the east. “Normally we stay in the part around Malakwa, but sometimes we work the Revelstoke ground, too, and that is a big move when we go there.”
Working under L-P’s direction, Van Ommen Contracting is essentially doing market logging, harvesting wood for a number of other mills and operations in the region. “We have one of the largest log spec sheets going, producing for the different companies in the region, and their different operations—each one has different sizes and specs.” And the mix in the bush can vary greatly—one block can be half old growth, and half second growth. How do they deal with so many sorts and such varying tree conditions? “It takes good processor guys and good loader guys,” says John.
Due to the varying logs and where they are going, the trucking is co-ordinated by L-P and Van Ommen, working together.
John says he feels fortunate to now have both his sons in the business, along with long term employees. He noted it can be difficult to get good people. “First of all, we try to keep the people we have so we don’t have to look for new employees. But sometimes, people decide to move, and do other things.”
When they were looking for excavator and skidder operators this past spring, they had a large number of people applying, from all over the province. But they try to hire local, wherever possible. “Local guys seem to work best for us—they are more likely to stay around,” he says.
Though he is encouraged to have family in the business, John said he is very concerned about the sustainability of the logging contracting sector. He’s looking forward to seeing the report from former provincial Liberal cabinet minister George Abbott, who is currently overseeing a Contractor Sustainability Review for the B.C government. The review could be one of the most significant pieces of work to affect timber harvesting contractors in decades, say some industry people.
While he recognizes the licencees have made investments in milling operations, and need a return on their investment, contractors such as himself have also made significant investments in equipment, and people—and require a reasonable return on their investment. “The companies need to be willing to share more,” he says.
On the Cover:
For Vancouver Island logger Jesse Drover of JBM Falling Ltd, getting involved in steep slope logging was a natural progression. Drover operated a feller buncher for 13 years, so he was very familiar with mechanical harvesting before starting work with the ClimbMax steep slope harvester—and the tethered harvesting system is working out well for him, doing steep slope logging on the Island. (Cover photo by Paul MacDonald).
Keep on truckin’…
The BC Forest Safety Council—and forest industry—are taking a leadership role in a training program for new logging truck drivers in the province, spurred on by the large number of experienced logging truck drivers retiring.
Taking over—and tackling steep slopes
The next generation is gradually taking over at B.C.’s Van Ommen Contracting, and they’re finding steep slopes ahead of them—but there’s good equipment out there to tackle those steep slopes.
A great fit for steep slopes, Island style
The New Zealand-developed and built ClimbMax tethered harvesting system is making its mark on Vancouver Island—and logger Jesse Drover says the steep ground they have to work in is ideal for the ClimbMax.
Co-operative contracting in Quebec
Quebec’s Eclaircie Gaspesie contract logging operation has found its own path to success: a combination of equipment operators David Lévesque and Sebastian LeBlanc, along with forestry co-operative Groupement forestier cooperative Baie des Chaleurs—supported by solid Ponsse equipment.
SATCO head gets thumbs-up in Alberta
Alberta logging operation R. Bruce Erickson Construction says their new SATCO processing head is performing well, with the company’s Cody Erickson giving the head the thumbs-up both in its production capabilities and precision.
Kiwi super sawmill
The recent start-up of a new line at the Red Stag sawmill in New Zealand has created a lot of excitement, as the mill could now be the largest in the southern hemisphere—and there’s certainly no doubt that it is super fast and super accurate.
The next big thing in plywood
Already known for embracing technology and innovation, Oregon’s Freres Lumber is now taking its operations a step further, building a specialized manufacturing facility to produce the company’s newest innovation, Mass Plywood Panels.
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, Alberta Agriculture and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
It’s time for a mountain pine beetle battle plan—involving the Feds—in Jasper National Park, says Tony Kryzanowski.