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Slow, but steady, return to stability in Saskatchewan forests
Norrish Logging is sensing that stability is returning to Saskatchewan’s forest industry after a downturn that took its toll on the mills and contractors alike.
By Tony Kryzanowski
For the past decade, survival for Saskatchewan’s Norrish Logging has been a lot like that famous Willie Nelson song, ‘On The Road Again.’
But now, with a stump-to-dump logging contract to supply the recently reopened Edgewood Forest Products sawmill in Carrot River, the company’s perseverance has paid off They are working closer to home and finally able to set down roots.
“Hopefully the worst is behind us—and we’re optimistic that it is,” says company co-owner, Rick Norrish. “It’s not going to happen overnight, though. I guess our biggest concern is whether the Prince Albert pulp mill will operate again. Right now, we have to deliver pulp wood all the way to The Pas, Manitoba and that’s not feasible, but it’s the only outlet there is.” Delivering pulp wood to Prince Albert is only an hour away versus five hours to The Pas.
With the sudden and rapid decline of the province’s forest industry around 2005, Norrish Logging was faced with a decision whether to pack it in or attempt to survive through the downturn. Like so many other loggers in the province at the time, they had industry experience, employees and a logging fleet, but few business opportunities. However, they managed to survive by taking the same route followed by many workers suddenly laid off from a one industry town: for several years they went mobile with their equipment fleet and took on small contracts wherever they were offered.
Owned by Rick and Karen Norrish, they’ve been logging for about 35 years. The couple made the move into logging from farming and operating a small sawmill. Rick learned the logging business working for another contractor harvesting wood for forest company, SaskFor, before making the jump to owner/operator by purchasing his own skidder and working in fire burn areas north of Carrot River.
They invested in a full scale, log harvesting fleet in the late 1990s when taking on a contract with Suntec Forest Products in Zenon Park, Saskatchewan. It was a sawmill and value-added remanufacturing business established in partnership with a First Nations band in the Fort a la Corne forest area.
“That’s really when we gained experience harvesting timber on private land, which we did for Suntec for a couple of years,” says Rick.
But once lumber prices fell—and having to purchase timber on private land because they were unable to secure a consistent wood supply on public land—Suntec closed its doors.
Norrish Logging stayed the course and took on contracts with Carrier Lumber and Weyerhaeuser until 2005 when Weyerhaeuser closed or mothballed all of its operations in Saskatchewan. What was painful at the time for the logging company was that they had just purchased a new feller buncher and processor.
“The day that we had our processor delivered, it was on the radio that the pulp mill was shutting down,” says Karen. The announcement caught even local Weyerhaeuser personnel by surprise.
“Of course, nobody could believe that it was going to be shut down,” Rick adds. “They just thought somebody else was going to buy them. This is a pretty good forest management area, with all kinds of roads and infrastructure. We couldn’t believe that nobody bought it.”
After several years of closure, the pulp mill was finally purchased by Vancouver-based Paper Excellence in 2011, which has yet to restart the mill. The company says start-up could take up to two years.
After Weyerhaeuser, Norrish Logging took on contracts cutting posts for Vermette Wood Products, logging for L & M Wood Products in Glaslyn, and then for the Peter Ballantyne First Nation at Pelican Narrows and Creighton. That contract was for cutting post material and pulp wood in a fire burn area. The posts went to Vermette Wood Products and the pulp wood was transported to the Tolko pulp mill in The Pas.
“We’ve worked from one side of the province to the other,” says Karen.
Now, they have a contract to harvest 50,000 cubic metres for Edgewood Forest Products, a company headquartered in Quesnel, B.C. that purchased the old Weyerhaeuser stud mill in Carrot River.
Norrish Logging logs year round and at peak operations in winter, they have nine employees. Rick’s brother, Jim Norrish, is their feller buncher operator and a key part of day-to-day operations.
They have found that there is no lack of demand for logs from Edgewood Forest Products; the stud mill ramped up to full production at its Carrot River operations in three days, after sitting idle for about five years.
“It’ll be very nice to stay in our hometown for a while,” Rick says. “We are also logging in really nice ground for summer logging.”
The area north of Carrot River where Norrish Logging is working is fairly flat terrain with sandy soil consisting of an entirely coniferous forest. The average log diameter is about 9”.
Their fleet consists of a Risley TK921 feller buncher, a Waratah 622B processor head on a Caterpillar 320 carrier, a Fabtec 240 processor on a Hyundai 180 carrier, two Tree Farmer C6F forwarders, a Caterpillar 518C skidder, a Caterpillar 7E crawler dozer, a Caterpillar 966C loader, and a 760 Champion grader.
Because the company has stayed afloat essentially by taking on smaller contracts, Rick says the upside with taking on the bigger Edgewood Forest Products contract is that their equipment doesn’t have a lot of hours despite being a bit older now. It is still quite serviceable.
They harvest and process logs at the stump and forward them to roadside. Sorting is done by the processor operator into three categories—stud mill material from 4” to 13” diameter, oversized logs, and pulp logs.
One aspect that is new in terms of the logging industry in Saskatchewan is the reallocation of Weyerhaeuser’s massive forest management area (FMA) using a made-in-Saskatchewan model. A new entity called Sakaw Askiy Forest Management Inc. has assumed management of the old Prince Albert FMA held in name by Weyerhaeuser and managed by Domtar. Sakaw shareholders include the Agency Chiefs Tribal Council, Carrier Lumber, Edgewood Forest Products, L&M Wood Products, Meadow Lake Mechanical Pulp, Montreal Lake Cree Nation, NorSask Forest Products and Tolko Industries. The management company will not engage in harvesting, hauling or silviculture, but will be responsible for sustainable allocation of the resource to the six forest companies and two First Nations that make up the partnership.
Rick says this new forest management arrangement has not impacted their logging operations so far but it definitely is a complicated system that will take time to establish itself. That process is still ongoing.
He says the forest industry downturn didn’t have much impact on the local economy because Saskatchewan’s other resource industries are flourishing. It did, however, make it difficult to find individuals willing to work in the logging industry. It encouraged loggers to seek work elsewhere such as in the province’s mining and petroleum industries or in Alberta’s oilpatch.
“It’s really hard to compete with the mines and the oilfield,” says Rick. “People can drive to Prince Albert, board an airplane, and an hour later they are in a mining camp.” It’s also hard to compete with a week-on and week-off work schedule as well as full benefits.
“Something has to happen so that someone can have a job in forestry and make a living,” he adds. He estimates that there are probably one-quarter the number of logging contractors now working in the province vs. before the downturn.
Going forward, the company is seriously considering working with its established employees to have them move toward becoming sub-contractors to Norrish Logging in both the feller bunching and processing area, thus relieving the company of having to deal with the manpower issue. Rick says that given the uncertainty within Saskatchewan forestry, he believes that may be the only way to attract individuals back to the industry in a similar fashion as to how he started out, by purchasing a few pieces of equipment to start and then working toward a full fledged fleet. He adds that it’s not only a labor issue, but a financing issue, as it is hard to find someone willing to finance an equipment purchase given the state of the industry.
However, the Norrish’s are feeling positive about more harvesting volume becoming available soon because Edgewood Forest Products is currently only operating one shift, with the potential of moving to two shifts. According to stud mill general manager Andy Borsa, they would like to move to two shifts soon, as long as it can be justified by lumber prices and demand.
What’s also positive is Edgewood’s plan to eventually manufacture more value-added wood products.
“I think our wood suits that because I think it is a higher value wood,” says Rick. “It’s older, slow growing, tight grained wood.”
There is also the potential to do more with the biomass and pulp for energy and heat production, perhaps even generating power to sell to the provincial electrical grid.
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