Click here to download a PDF of this article

Nova Scotia’s B P Fraser Forestry is weathering the industry’s economic challenges, making changes to its own operations to remain an efficient—and lean—logging operation.

By George Fullerton

When Stora Enso announced in September 2006 that they were resuming production at their Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia mill after being shut down for nearly a year, the Cape Breton community rejoiced. The 550,000 tonnes-per-year newsprint and super calendared mill was, and still is, the industrial economic driver for Cape Breton and is a significant wood fibre consumer for eastern Nova Scotia and eastern New Brunswick.                                   

BP Fraser Forestry was one of Stora’s harvesting contractors that faced the unenviable situation of the mill going down—and had to live through several months wondering if the mill would ever resume operations. According to Bill Fraser, Stora did share what few Crown sawlog contracts to sublicense mills the company had with their harvest contractors.                 

“Stora made an effort to spread what harvest work they could among their contractors,” he says. “But practically speaking, I had only enough work to allow one harvester to work sporadically. All of the other contractors were in the same boat, and unfortunately we had to park our machines.                                   

“Then when the mill operation started up, we found that our best operators had either gone west, or moved on to other employment. We faced a tremendous challenge to find qualified operators and train them to the point where they were productive.”                                   

Bill Fraser began working in forestry as a forwarder operator and became a forwarding and trucking contractor before purchasing an Enviro harvester and a Stora thinning contract from his cousin, David Fraser, in 2003. Bill purchased a Rottne F9 forwarder to round out his thinning team.                                   

Looking to expand his operation in the summer of 2005, Fraser purchased the first John Deere 770D harvester to land on North American shores and added a Deere 1070D within weeks.

The Enviro harvester (right) is still a very productive machine for the Fraser operation. With 23,000 hours on it, the Enviro still puts in a solid shift with good production numbers.

“The 770 was demo-ed at a show in New Brunswick, and the following week it went to work on our operation. I purchased the 770 because I wanted more capacity for ghost trail harvesting on Stora operations,” explains Fraser. “The 770 has quite a bit more power and cab comfort than the Enviro, and it can very comfortably transfer to lowland clearcut work that we see in the winter.”                                   

Through the summer and autumn months, Fraser works on the Cape Breton Highlands, performing first-entry commercial thinning in naturally regenerated balsam fir which had previously been pre-commercially thinned. The commercial thinning operation consists of main extraction trails separated by thirty-metre leave strips. The main trail harvesters process the trees harvested from the main trail, piling it at trailside, and also reaching into the leave strip to harvest the small balsam fir.                                   

A second harvester picks out a very narrow ghost trail in the centre of the leave strip and harvests trees, depositing the processed wood at trailside along with the wood processed by the main trail harvester. Fraser points out that in some stands it takes as many as 40 harvested trees to produce one tonne of wood. Typically in the winter months, Fraser moves on to Crown and Stora freehold operations in the lowlands, which consist of both clearcut and partial harvest work.                                   

Fraser also bids on private woodlot stum-page contracts around his home base near the Village of Mabou.                                   

“The Enviro is still a very productive machine for us. It requires only a very narrow trail, just over two metres wide, which makes it one of the best machines for ghost trail harvesting. “The Enviro has 23,000 hours on it and is still putting in a solid shift with good production on the Highlands throughout the summer. The operator, Frank Crawdis, came with the machine, and although he is approaching retirement age, he continues to be a very productive operator on the Enviro.”                                   

The 770, equipped with a John Deere 745 head, has also proved to meet Fraser’s production expectation for ghost trail application. The 745 head serves as a productive thinning head, as well as having the power and capacity to handle challenges in clearcut applications too.                                   

“The 745 head is slimmer than the 754 head on the 1070. It will move through standing trees without barking damage on trees, and the boom has very good power that allows us to pull the stems out for processing.”                                   

When the operation moved onto the Highlands this past summer, they took the rear chains off the 770 in order to reduce barking on the trail side trees.                                   

“Removing the chains made it three inches narrower and that is significant when ghosting,” says Fraser. “When you compare the completed work of the Enviro and the 770, the results are very close—you have to look at the tire tracks to determine which machine actually did the work.”                                   

Fraser’s 770 is also equipped with a cab leveling feature that offers either automatic or manual leveling. “The operator keeps it on manual leveling, which allows more control when reaching trees and getting them out of the stand without damaging the remaining trees.                                   

“Richard Pynn was one of the operators I lost when Stora shut down. He headed out west, but soon had enough and he came back home and wanted to go back to the woods—he has become an even more productive thinning operator on the 770.”

The 770D is equipped with a John Deere 745 head that serves as a productive thinning head, as well as having the power and capacity to handle challenges in clearcut applications.

When they went back to work with Stora, the company wanted them to go back to double shift—they tried, but Fraser found it impossible to find competent operators. “Stora sponsored a training program and contractors were invited to submit candidates to the program, but it was not very successful because we could not find people who really had the drive and capacity, and desire, to be operators.                                   

I tried a lot of new operators and finally came to the conclusion that I should stick with my best operators, and just run a single shift.                                   

“Through the summer on the Highlands, we were running the 1070 on main trails and the 770 and the Enviro on the ghost trails, and we were making our production targets,” he adds. “My operators are really happy working the single shift—they start work at 3:00 am and run until 2:00 pm, then do an hour’s maintenance. They like single shift because there is only one operator for each machine, so there is only one guy to answer for.”                                   

Fraser also eliminated a mechanic’s position. “When we started up, I had to find opportunities to cut our operating expenses, and one thing I did was eliminate the mechanic position. I discussed it with my operators, and they were comfortable with the idea of being responsible for their machine’s maintenance and repair.” With three harvesters working, Fraser says that the F9 Rottne forwarder takes an extra long shift to keep the wood cleaned up. “My forwarder operator Dave Ingram will typically put in 50 to 60 hours per week, and I will put in a shift where necessary to keep the wood forwarded.

Operator Richard Pynn (right) in the John Deere 770D harvester. Fraser’s 770D is equipped with a cab leveling feature that offers either automatic or manual leveling. “The operator keeps it on manual leveling, which allows more control when reaching trees and getting them out of the stand without damaging the remaining trees.”  

Dave can also run the operation if I have to be away for a couple days. He says, ‘If we break down, we’ll fix it, and if it will cost more that $1,000, we’ll call ya.’ “The whole crew realizes that we have to work together to make the operation successful,” he adds. Dave’s son Johnny operates the 1070D.                                   

Fraser points out that he also works hard to keep the operators. “I pay them a good rate and I provide a bonus when we are doing well.”                                   

It has not been easy to get production back after the mill shutdown. “We were all in a tough financial situation. It has been a long hard struggle, and we are still scratching to get back to where we were before the shutdown. We all want the Port Hawkesbury operation to be profitable and successful. We are all optimistic and looking for a sign that the forestry sector is recovering.” As much as logging contractors such as Fraser have made changes to adapt to the industry’s challenging environment, more changes could be on the way. In late September, Stora Enso announced the sale of the company’s paper manufacturing operations in North America—including the Port Hawkesbury mill—to NewPage Holding Corporation of Ohio, a leading producer of coated papers in North America.