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Nimble Equipment

Ontario logger Buddy Lowery is able to make a go of it in the delicate logging required in shelterwood harvesting, thanks to a good crew and nimble harvesting equipment.

By Marek Krasuski

In an era of mergers and consolidation and large companies in Canada's forest industry, it’s reassuring to know there is still room for small, family-run harvesting operations—such as Lowery Forest Products—to survive.

Driving towards the village of Killarney, Ontario, on the North Channel of Lake Huron, heavy machinery groans deep in a distant cutblock. The makeshift logging road meandering from Highway 637 through the uneven topography leads to a cluster of machines and a handful of men in the bush. Buddy Lowery of Lowery Forest Products and his crew of five are working prodigiously at culling trees previously marked in a shelterwood cut plan. The shaded cover provided by the crowns of mature trees protects swaths of foliage so lush that the untrained eye would not notice any cutting taking place.

It’s delicate work that requires skill and experience to avoid unwanted damage to the leafy foliage. “We have to be careful not to damage any of the unmarked trees,” explains Lowery, who first started work in this cutblock in 2000.

Lowery owes much of his survival to the equipment he uses, especially in an employee-challenged age. Finding jobbers to cut under shelterwood licenses is difficult at the best of times as the quantity of trees marked for harvesting is limited. Add to this the buoyant economic climate in parts of northeastern Ontario, and manpower recruitment becomes next to impossible.
  Lowery’s Killarney cutblocks are an hour’s drive from Sudbury where the mining industry is racing at a pace not seen in decades. The nickel that is mined in the region sold only a few years ago for $2 a pound—it has since soared to almost ten times that price level. The average worker at Sudbury’s mining giants CVRD-Inco and Xstrata earns $100,000 annually with nickel bonuses factored in.

Faced with such rapacious competition, small harvesters can’t compete for workers. “All the young guys are going into the mines. It’s unfortunate for me, but I can’t blame them. The money they make is just too good to refuse,” Lowery says.

In addition to utilizing two smaller cable skidders to move logs, Buddy Lowery (below, right) relies on a small contingent of workers including his son, Josh (below, centre), and son-in-law Sam McLean to carry out logging operations   

Instead, he relies on the small contingent of loyal men and a number of loaders, skidders and feller bunchers that ease the demands of the workload. He employs his son Josh, son-in-law Sam McLean, Randy Jeffries and Brian Gunsen. The trees are cut with chainsaws, and cable skidders then move trees to the landing. Especially useful for culling trees in a shelterwood cutblock, the smaller machines deftly amble among stands of white and red pine, with minimal impact on the environment.

“The advantage of these skidders is that they are smaller and can get into tighter places.” Lowery lauds the efficiency of his two cable skidders, a Timberjack 450 and a Clark 664. “These are good machines. In a shelterwood cut, it’s easy to hook up one log at a time before skidding them out to the landing to be slashed.”

  The largely mechanized process of harvesting reduces the intensity of the physical labour involved. Credit also goes to the portability of their Serco 200 slasher that makes cutting so much easier, especially in more confined areas. “It does a good job,” continues Lowery. “Some slashers are hooked on to tractors. But attached to a truck, I can transport this one around a lot easier.”

With the Serco 200's 28-foot hydraulic boom, logs are easily maneuvered and cut into eight- 10-, 12-, 14-, and 16-foot lengths. Its 60-inch diameter saw easily slices through 24-inch trees.

 In other areas where clearcutting or strip cutting is allowed, Lowery relies on his John Deere 693 feller buncher and Deere 648E grapple skidder. Described by Lowery as a “very good machine,” the grapple always accompanies the feller buncher, hauling up to seven logs in a grab.

Lowery is currently the only harvester commissioned by the N’Skwakamok Forestry Corporation which is owned by a consortium of five First Nations groups. He harvests from three cutblocks, all within a short distance from each other. Building roads to each of them has been an expensive proposition, made easier with the help of a John Deere 690 excavator.

“It’s been a reliable piece of equipment for pulling stumps, filling holes, moving rocks, and making road surfaces,” he says of the machine, which was sitting idle at the edge of a rise until more roads are needed.

In historical terms, shelterwood cutting is a relatively recent phenomenon in Ontario. It’s designed to ensure the longstanding health of a forest by removing lesser grade trees to create an environment in which the healthier stands flourish. Introduced some twenty years ago, shelterwood harvesting has had its detractors.

“Shelterwood was not always embraced by areas in the North,” notes Ron Luopa, forestry representative for the Vermillion Forest Management Company (VFM). The company oversees harvesting on Crown lands in the Sudbury Forest, an expanse covering over one million hectares.

VFM is a partnership of eight companies licensed by the Ministry of Natural Resources to harvest timber on Crown land in the Sudbury Forest. Its responsibilities include: preparing forest management plans that meet all requirements of provincial legislation; monitoring forest operations to ensure that approved plans are implemented properly; and regenerating all harvested areas back to a productive forest condition.

A number of determinants are factored into the cutting prescription. The needs of the different trees: their growth patterns, light requirements, defects, and suitability for wildlife habitat are some of the factors involved. Shelterwood not only reduces the volume of fibre extracted, but also whittles away at profit margins. “It used to be that harvesting was based on size. The larger, well formed trees were taken, but that’s all changed,” Luopa continues.

In this regard, VFM carries out a balancing act. Its mandate is to ensure the long-term viability of the forest while enabling harvesters and sawmillers to make a profit, an onerous challenge for Lowery and others like him facing an industry rife with difficulties.

Under the current prescription, Lowery will extract 30 to 40 per cent of the forest volume. Many of the trees targeted for removal are much smaller than the 14-inch diameter he says is necessary to make a profit in today’s bleak market conditions. The smaller white pine and red pines, and the other species like poplar, spruce, and birch, will not be made into lumber, but instead will be shipped to Domtar in Espanola, west of Sudbury, where they will be ground into pulp for paper products.

The larger trees—14-inches and up—will be harvested by Lowery and collected by his only customer, the Wagoshig First Nation, located three hours to the north, where they are processed by the Wagoshig mill into lumber and finished products which are shipped to southern Ontario and the US.
  Previously, Lowery Forest Products sold to neighbouring mills, but the current slump requires accessing more distant customers. Indeed, the drop in demand for lumber has been brutal. Lowery describes the last two years as the worst in his 25 years as a harvester, a common refrain in the region. It is echoed by Ron Luopa, who identifies a number of reasons for the industry’s struggles.

“A combination of factors is responsible for the current conditions,” he notes.

 “When the Canadian dollar was lower, you could sell in the American market and make a good profit. Competition from offshore markets and the trend of replacing wood products in the housing market with cheaper alternatives has had a huge effect on the industry.”
  Luopa also points to the devastation brought on by the mountain pine beetle that continues to bore its way through Canadian forests. In attempting to beat the pine beetle, wholesale salvage harvests in BC have driven fibre prices down, while escalating costs—fuel prices and insurance premiums are prime culprits— exacerbate the problem.

Lowery Forest Products has a Serco 200 slasher that is able to work in confined areas and produce the eight- 10-, 12-, 14- and 16-foot length logs the company’s customers require.

Also, the mounting challenges to Ontario’s foresters calls for a structure where operational efficiencies are shaped to reflect popular environmental sensibilities.

Lowery is working on the first cut in this shelterwood design. Subsequent cuts will target future trees that will be culled to ensure maximum growth potential, according to the Vermillion Forest Management Company and the Ministry of Natural Resources.

These cutblocks are situated near the Killarney Provincial Park, an area that encompasses a vast expanse blanketed by canopies of lush foliage and sprinkled with hundreds of lakes, many bordered with crystalline beaches. The region attracts thousands of visitors drawn by unique geological formations and rich wildlife.

Less than a mile away from the cutblock, a stream of tourist traffic flows along the highway into the Killarney port community. This seems to be strong proof that what some people view as incompatible industries—tourism and forestry—can, in fact, co-exist and even thrive, due in part to self-sustaining shelterwood plans maintained by harvesters like Lowery Forest Products.