Getting invited back

Ontario’s Guest Logging leaves as light a footprint as possible in the woodlots and bushes where it carries out selective logging because it’s the right thing to do and for another simple reason: they want to be invited back.

By Paul MacDonald

o paraphrase an old saying, Ontario hardwood logger Marc Guest walks softly and carries a narrow skidder. Working with an Allied Ranger F65C cable skidder in the bush and a Case 60XT skid steer machine in the landing, the Guest Logging crew takes care to leave as light a footprint as possible in the woodlots and bushes around Midland, Ontario. Their aim: keep the private landowners that they deal with happy.

There are literally hundreds of private woodlots and bushes in this region of southern Ontario, many of them containing high value oak and cherry timber. Guest takes pride in running an efficient logging operation. But their primary focus is on the high value of that wood, rather than on generating high production numbers. Reflecting that, they put about 1,000 hours a year on the Ranger skidder, and perhaps 500 hours a year on the Case skid steer.

In his close to 20 years in the business, Guest has seen many of the bushes in this area first hand; he’s been back to selectively harvest some of them two or three times. The owners like the work of Guest and his crew.

“I think one of the things landowners like is that I’m on the landing,” he says. “If they have a problem, they can come and talk to me. With some other operations, a timber buyer might come in, do the deal, and they’ll never see him again. All the work is done by a contract logger

Marc Guest (above) has been back to selectively harvest bushes in his area two or three times. Landowners like to know they can deal directly with Guest. “With the logging we do, the buck stops with me,” he says.

from there on in—and they may or may not know about the issues the landowner spelled out for the timber buyer.

“With the work we do, the buck stops with me, and I’m right there. That’s worth something to the landowner.”

If there’s any problem—and there rarely is—he’s there on the ground to deal with it. “If the end of a culvert gets damaged while we are doing work, we’re not going to quibble about it—we’re going to fix it.”

Well before harvesting even takes place, however, Guest is careful to walk landowners through the logging plan, making sure they are 100 per cent comfortable with what is going on.

“I don’t mind doing that,” he says. “I’d rather meet with an owner a bunch of times, and have them happy, than get started and have someone upset. My approach is they have to be satisfied with what we are going to do—if they’re not, let’s not do it. I’ve walked away from

The Allied Ranger F65C cable skidder that Guest Logging uses is very narrow and light, and helps in the effort to leave a light footprint in bushes and woodlots.

bushes where the owners were not ready to have it cut.”

Guest is very upfront with landowners about the process. “With the Ranger, we’ve got the narrowest skidder on the market, at eight feet, five inches wide. It’s as small and as light as it can be—but it’s still a skidder, and we’re still logging.

“We’re going to do the best logging job we can do, but the bush is going to look different afterwards. I think sometimes loggers can run into problems because they make unreasonable promises, saying a bush is going to look great afterwards when that’s really not the case.”

This upfront approach pays off for Guest Logging. In several timber bidding situations, he has won the logging rights—even though his bid was not the highest. “It’s worked out pretty good for us—people know us and know the kind of work we do. Sometimes they want a certain logger in their bush because they’ve dealt with them before.”

That said, Guest notes that there is always the temptation for landowners to go “with the big money.” He tells of timber buyers visiting landowners, offering them literally bundles of cash on the spot for their wood. These timber buyers can be light on the details on how the logging is actually going to be done.

However, loggers are generally more mindful of their reputation these days, and more business-minded, says Guest. There is, of course, the cutter and equipment operator training that is now required in Ontario. And there’s often a significant investment that has to be made in the business, particularly in iron. “The days of going to Canadian Tire, getting a chainsaw and going out and dropping trees are over,” he says.

Guest himself started his business in 1990 with $7,000 invested in a used skidder, and two chainsaws. Up until recently, just before hardwood prices took a tumble, he had three logging crews—each with its own faller, skidder and skid-steer—working in the area. Presently, Guest is working with one crew, with the Ranger skidder and Case skid steer, and is comfortable with that.

Guest and cutter/skidder operator Don Foxall take reasonably good care of the Ranger and Case equipment, with all the required maintenance done on a regular basis. The equipment gets regular power washings and visits to the local welding shop for some patching up, now and then. But with the relatively low operating hours, and the fairly gentle terrain of the area, the equipment is in pretty good shape.

“The ground we work in is not that bad,” Guest says. “And our skids aren’t that long.” Many times, the bush is close to the landing, and the real challenge can be in managing multiple sorts on the landing.

Guest notes that the demands contractors put on their equipment in this part of Ontario are dramatically different from the high volume softwood logging operations in other parts of the province and of the country. Some loggers in the area are working—quite successfully— with skidders that date from the 1970s. “That equipment would not last long in those high volume operations they have in Northern Alberta or BC.”

The challenge of the wood itself is so different, as well, says Guest. “Softwood tends to be pretty consistent. But with the hardwood, we could have a log that is worth $1,000 or $10, and it all might depend on how you cut it and where you sell it.

“When I’m out buying a bush, I’m looking at a tree and thinking how white is that tree? How big is the heart? What is the grain like? With hardwoods, you really have to know your trees—you’re almost seeing inside the bark.”

The challenge of logging in this area of Ontario, Guest explains, lies not in equipment management, but of securing timber—and the trick is in getting the right amount of timber at the right price at the right time.

“The day-to-day aspects of running the logging operation are not the hard part, though it has challenges. It’s the timber. You need a bunch of it and sometimes you’re buying wood that you’re not going to get at until months down the road, which can be dicey when the market for hardwood logs is uncertain.”

When things were active and the market was good, he had the confidence to buy bushes, and not get to them for as far out as a year. Over the last dozen years, the market for hardwood logs, driven by demand from local mills and mills in the US, was very healthy. At its peak, Guest Logging had about 10 pieces of equipment—skidders, skid steers and support equipment—on the go.

But last year, Guest could see the crunch coming—in a matter of weeks, timber prices at one local mill fell by almost 25 per cent. Being pro-active, he shared the news with his crews that he would be downsizing. The downsizing was done over a couple of months, giving employees ample opportunity to find something else. Two employees, in fact, decided to go into the business themselves, and bought one of Guest’s skidders, a Clark 665D.

“Having to do something like that is hard on the people, but we knew we couldn’t carry on the way we were going,” he says. “We’re putting a big investment out there when we log hardwood trees and I need to be fairly confident that we’re going to make our sliver of profit on that. Even if you just have a few crews working away, you can have half-a-million dollars committed out there in standing trees—and you can be history pretty quickly if prices are falling. Right now, it’s just too damn dangerous to have a big amount of wood ahead of us.”

These days, Guest is running more of a “hot logging” operation—sometimes the wood is cut today, on the truck tonight and at the mill tomorrow. And at any point he might have perhaps four woodlots or bushes lined up. This compares with having 10 or 20 woodlots lined up during busy times.

The average size of the woodlot they are working in is about 20 acres. It’s important to keep a close tab on where things are at with the logging with these sizes of operations, says Guest. “We’ll keep track of how close to completion we are and when we’re done, I’ll try to move the equipment at night to the next bush. We’ll then meet the next morning to review the work that needs to be done.”

While they may have to move equipment around a bit at certain points, the actual distance the equipment has to travel is fairly limited. Guest generally works within a 25 to 30 mile radius of his home base in Midland.

Any visual impact of the logging they do is minimal. “We can drive by woodlots that we recently cut, and you wouldn’t even know it,” says Guest. The biggest local clearcut recently—if you could even call it that—occurred when they did a small clearing job on the local ski hill, for another ski run.

While keeping 10 pieces of equipment on the go—and more importantly, having enough bush in the pipeline to keep all that equipment busy—certainly came with challenges, Guest says he

Handling the hardwood in the landing is a Case 60XT skid steer. Having relatively low operating hours, the skid steer and the Ranger skidder are in good shape.

does not mind the bit of a breather they are getting these days. But he’s also concerned that the current downturn in log prices might take a toll on the contracting sector. There’s often a lack of recognition that it’s in the industry’s interest to make sure there

is a healthy—and competitive—logging sector, he notes.

“There’s nobody more dedicated than a small logger,” he says. “They’re struggling against the weather, equipment problems, and it’s dangerous.”

Loggers are key to the industry, and the mills, and forest companies, need to be reminded of that, concludes Guest. “No matter how much computer equipment you have in a mill, none of that matters if the mill doesn’t have logs. And if you don’t have a healthy contractor sector, you won’t have logs.”

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