By Jim Stirling
As empty logging trucks gear-grind the switchbacks up the hill above the Sheep Creek crossing of the Fraser River, they climb westward into a different world. It’s called the Chilcotin. And it’s not a place you go to for bright lights unless it’s the Aurora Borealis variety.
For forest companies operating in the Chilcotin, the predominant lodgepole pine tends to be small diameter and of questionable quality. The trees are the product of the dry, cold soils that characterize the Chilcotin Plateau.
Yet for all its defects and downsides including distance from most of the sawmills that process the woodChilcotin timber makes good lumber. But that won’t last with the mountain pine beetle epidemic, and the pressure is on to get volumes out while the wood retains value for dimension and stud lumber production. Westline Harvesting Ltd is at home in the Chilcotin. The company’s management and logging crews understand the log harvesting and logistical challenges and they are constantly adapting to accommodate them and meet mill requirements.
Westline is a stump-to-dump contractor based in Williams Lake, British Columbia, where most of the east Chilcotin wood is processed. The company typically harvests about 325,000 cubic metres annually for Tolko Industries Ltd. Tolko has three sawmills in Williams Lake, a stud mill and two dimension sawmills. Westline is a division of Clusko Logging Enterprises Ltd, a successful logging contractor with more than 20 years’ experience log harvesting in the Chilcotin. More recently Clusko, named for a tributary of the Chilcotin River, has expanded operations into northern and central BC. It harvests between 400,000 and 450,000 cubic metres annually for Canfor Corporation. The Chilcotin terrain is generally fairly forgiving for log harvesting. “But you have to be efficient, given our marginal stands,” points out Dave Whitwell, Westline’s operations manager.
The cutting permit the company was recently working in was relatively typical butin true Chilcotin fashionhad its own little quirks. It had some slope to it and the approximately 30,000 cubic metres it contained in three main blocks required the building of about 13 kilometres of road to access. The low volume per hectare drives up the cost per cubic metre, notes Whitwell. And then there’s the piece sizes. Westline’s average piece sizes are between 0.15 and 0.18 metres per tree. The company cuts to 4.5-inch tops. The need for an efficient harvesting system becomes clearer all the time. An additional challenge is the fine textured soils with very little duff that makes compaction harder to achieve. Another block requirement was retention of specific sizes of fir for biodiversity and wildlife purposes, and protection of spruce and Douglas fir regen.
Westline operates a roadside short log harvesting system. Tolko wants its logs delivered in nine-foot and 18-foot lengths. Westline’s processor operators make nine- and 18-foot sorts for quality, separating the stems earmarked for dimension lumber or stud production.
Tolko has also initiated a more flexible wood hauling regime. Essentially, it involves sorting and hauling the nine-foot log bundles separately from the 18-foot logs. Log trailer configurations have been changed on some of the Super B-Train rigs to haul different combinations of separated nine- and 18-foot-long logs at the same time. (See accompanying sidebar story.)
“There are more challenges on the organization of it,” explains Whitwell. “When a specially rigged truck arrives, you need to have a product ready to go on it and in the same wood profile.” As a stump-to-dump contractor, Westline has 14 of its own logging trucks and uses them and a couple of sub-contractors’ rigs in the system. “We can basically control positioning of the trucks so the loading can be set up appropriately,” he adds. “With in-house trucks, the planning works quite well and it’s good for the mills.”
Westline’s logging truck fleet is heavy to Kenworths with 10 units and four Western Stars. It’s not easy hauling despite the Chilcotin being a grassy and forested plateau. It’s deeply incised by rivers. This particular show was on the west side of hoodoofringed Farwell Canyon carved out by the Chilcotin River. “Trucks are always pulling or braking,” explains Whitwell. That increases fuel consumptiona major concern these daysas well as being tough on brakes, drive trains, transmissions and rear ends. It’s another reason why companies are keen to increase the cubic metres of dry beetle wood hauled on each truck.
Westline’s log harvesting machines are weighted to John Deere equipment. “We get really good service from Brandt Tractor (the John Deere dealer) in Williams Lake,” says Whitwell. An exception to the Deere equipment is a Tigercat 860 feller buncher. It’s complemented by three Deere 853s and a 753. Grapple skidding is performed by four Deere 748s, three GIIIs and one GII machine. Westline runs seven Deere 2054 processors fitted with Waratah 622B heads and there are two 2054 log loaders.
Pushing through new roadsat about 600 lineal metres a day in summer and more in winterare Cat D8K and International TD20G crawlers and a Deere 200 excavator. Ancillary equipment includes a Champion 740A grader, two service trucks, shop trucks and a dedicated low bed.
Westline has 52 employees and seven sub-contractor employees. The bush side typically operates two shifts a day of 10 or 11 hours. Crews were using a Tolko camp as base. “We’ve got good quality employees who work well together,” says Whitwell. Westline has been fortunate to retain its core group. That’s significant with skilled worker migration to higher paying jobs in the Northern Alberta oil patch. It’s also important because Westline’s equipment operators and support people recognize what it takes to make a log harvesting system work efficiently in the Chilcotin.
New strategies for bug-killed wood
Beetle wood is lighter than green stems so ways are being investigated to put larger loads of the nine- and 18-foot longs on each truck. Tolko asked two of its Chilcotin contractors, including Westline Harvesting, to change bunk spacing on some of their trailers to accommodate different combinations of nine-and 18-foot log bundles. Mooney says about 24 B-train trucks have been rigged to that type of configuration.
Evolving from that, Williams Lake licensees worked with the Commercial Vehicle Safety and Enforcement Authority to increase truck payload in beetle wood. The result is a letter of authorization covering specific cutting permits that allows truck loads to be extended, primarily at the rear end. They’re now able to get from what was about 58 cubic metres up to 62 to 68 cubic metres on some of the trucks, points out Mooney, with a resulting improvement in the costs per cubic metre hauled figures.