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Pioneer prairie planers
Saskatchewan’s Zelensky Brothers have a rich history in Saskatchewan sawmilling, especially on the planing side—and it may not be over yet, if the Prince Albert pulp mill re-opens, creating a chip market.
By Tony Kryzanowski
Owners of lumber planer mills and grain threshing machines were treated like kings in the last century. The first provided finished lumber that farmers could use themselves or sell to others, and the second provided the means for converting cereal crops into grain and straw.
Brian Zelensky (left in photo), and his father, Peter (right), along with Brian’s brother, Perry, became involved in the Saskatchewan forest industry initially as custom lumber planers using their mobile planing system. The Zelensky mobile planing operation (right) was largely responsible for much of the finished lumber produced in the 1960s and 1970s in northern Saskatchewan.
Mention the Zelensky name to farmers in the Prince Albert, Saskatchewan area, and it’s very likely they will remember Peter Zelensky and his portable Alco planer mill. Or they might know his sons, Brian and Perry, who until recently operated the Zelensky Bros. Sawmill in Lac La Ronge, north of Prince Albert, until the price of lumber and the Softwood Lumber Agreement made continued operation of that sawmill uneconomic.
“We stayed in the custom planing business for a lot of years,” says Brian.
Peter, now 92-years-old and retired on a farm north of Prince Albert with his wife, Sophie, has fond memories of an old mobile and customized planer mill that still sits in his bone yard behind the house.
His first taste of the forest industry was owning a small farm sawmill to manufacture rough lumber with his brother, Walter.
“I worked at a planer mill in B.C. one year and it was sort of an idea that came to me. There were no planers in the country, so I went out and bought a planer and pretty soon the jobs came and we got bigger and bigger jobs,” says Peter.
He bought his first planer in about 1950 and then a bigger Alco planer in 1959. “I moved around to most of the sawmills around here and did all the summer work.”
Planing in those days was typically done in the summer. The predominant spruce logs averaging 12” to 14” in diameter and located on private land were harvested in winter, and the logs were sawn into rough lumber in spring. The logging was done in winter because it was easier to skid and transport the logs at that time of year. Many roads were nothing more than dirt trails back then.
After the green lumber was sawn, dry piled for a few months and the crops were planted in spring, the lumber was planed. In addition to his own lumber, Zelensky also had many regular planing customers. There were sawmills all the way from Prince Albert to White Fox, about an hour east. Zelensky also planed lumber produced under the authority of the Saskatchewan Timber Board. The key was their mobility.
The planer mill set-up, which had wheels attached to it, was pulled with a tractor that provided the power on site to run the planer. There was also a resaw in line with the planer so that after the lumber was planed, it could be resawn into smaller dimensions. Typical products were siding, well cribbing, 2 X 4’s, 2 X 6’s and ship lap.
“All of us boys worked with Dad on that planer mill in the summer time,” says Brian Zelensky. “We used to travel around with him piling lumber and driving loaders. We got used to that kind of work.”
Loading and unloading the planer (above) was just part of the exercise of being able to move to where the customer had stacked his rough lumber for the Zelensky family.
The business environment changed in the 1970s with the introduction of building codes, which required lumber to be graded. This caused many of the bush sawmills to shut down, which dried up the market for custom planing.
In 1976, Brian decided to take a two week lumber grading course.
“That was kind of the restart of that planer mill because once we had a licence to grade lumber with a portable planer mill, we could start taking on some of the larger work,” he says.
At that same time, the Department of Northern Saskatchewan (DNS) was operating fairly large seasonal sawmills to create employment in communities like Cumberland House, Lac La Ronge, and Green Lake. They did not have planer mills attached to them, which created a significant custom planing opportunity for the Zelensky’s. In 1979, they took on their biggest contract to date, planing and grading three million board feet for the sawmill in Cumberland House, which led to other jobs with DNS sawmills because of the portability of the planer mill. That continued till 1986.
What hampered growth of the private sawmill industry at that time, says Brian, is that it was nearly impossible to get a timber licence because the wood supply on public land—except for the wood allocated to Weyerhaeuser's Prince Albert pulp mill—was controlled by the government through a Crown corporation call Saskatchewan Forest Products (SaskFor).
Politically, Saskatchewan is the birthplace of the New Democratic Party (NDP) movement, which resulted in the election of governments that tended to favor more government management and control of resources. The only private group operating in the province with the ability to produce graded lumber was the Saskatchewan Forest Products Association. The Zelensky’s were a member. Its members had sawmills in Green Lake, Carrot River, Big River, and Meadow Lake.
In the mid-1980s, DNS put its sawmills up for sale. With Brian operating the planer operation and Perry fresh off a year working in a sawmill in Mackenzie, B.C., they put in an offer to purchase the sawmill in Lac La Ronge, while continuing to operate their custom planing business.
“Having done the planing for them, we knew the mills well,” says Brian. “Lac La Ronge had a very good highway going to it and it had the best three-phase power supply. That particular sawmill also had a planer mill there. They used to hire us to run it for them.”
Initially, the sawmill produced up to two million board feet of planed and graded lumber per year, from logs still harvested using chainsaws and line skidders, within about a 50 kilometre radius of the community. Despite the difficulty of acquiring a timber licence at that time because it was all tied up with government corporations and by Weyerhaeuser, the Zelensky’s were able to negotiate a 5,000 cubic metre forest allocation along with the mill purchase.
In addition to operating a custom planing business, Brian and Perry Zelensky also purchased and operated the Zelensky Bros. Sawmill (above, left) in Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan for a couple of decades.
In the early 1990s, lumber prices began to rise. A major bonus to the Zelensky Bros. sawmill was that sawmills producing less than 10 million board feet were exempt from tariffs within Softwood Lumber Agreements with the United States, “which made our lumber quite attractive to the wholesalers,” says Brian.
In the mid-1990s, the Zelensky brothers looked for opportunities to grow their business, and purchased three other sawmills essentially for the timber rights they owned and also salvaged burnt timber, bringing production up to three million board feet.
All sawmills in Saskatchewan were exempted from the 1996 Softwood Lumber Agreement, and the Zelensky’s continued to work hard to grow their business up to five million board feet annually, including custom planing with a new high capacity, portable mill—a custom designed unit built around an old Yates planer and mounted on trailers for mobility.
“We never were allocated a wood supply other than what came with the mill,” says Brian. “We purchased our wood supply. That was always a bit of a challenge. We had to shut our mill down and lay off our men just about every winter because we didn’t have enough timber.”
In about 2000, more wood became available from the northern portion of the Weyerhaeuser Forest Management Agreement (FMA) attached to its Prince Albert pulp mill, and Zelensky Bros. pursued some of that timber, with the idea of constructing a new sawmill in Lac La Ronge, in partnership with a First Nation operating as Kitsaki Development Corporation. In 2001, they earned a 221,000 cubic metre timber supply.
In 2004, the partners purchased the assets of the Clearwater sawmill in Meadow Lake, which featured a new HewSaw line and dry kilns, placing it in storage until they had completed their business plan for the new sawmill.
The Saskatchewan forest industry went sideways about 2006 when a new Softwood Lumber Agreement included Saskatchewan, which caused the partners to put their plans for the new sawmill on hold. The Zelensky brothers continued to operate their sawmill as well as a new custom planing operation in Prince Albert for Weyerhaeuser at 180,000 board feet per shift. However, that collapsed when Weyerhaeuser closed all its operations in Saskatchewan.
“By 2008, we realized that it was not going to be possible to operate under the economic conditions in the United States at the time and with the Softwood Lumber Agreement,” says Brian. So they mothballed the business plan for the new sawmill. They also no longer had a chip market with the closure of the pulp mill. Brian and Perry shut down the Zelensky Bros. Sawmill that year, given the economic climate at the time.
Perry still maintains the sawmill but it is in hiatus till the pulp mill starts up again in Prince Albert, thus creating a local chip market. The new pulp mill owners are Paper Excellence, which has stated that they hope to have the pulp mill operating this year.
Over the past few years, Brian has focused on the family farm with his brothers, increasing the farming operation from 2000 acres in 1987 to about 5000 acres at present. The 221,000 cubic metre timber licence is still in place and the sawmill remains a viable operation should economic conditions for the forest industry improve. Given its northern location and the current price for fuel, distance to market will always be a challenge for operating the Lac La Ronge sawmill.
Brian says the reallocation of Weyerhaeuser’s large FMA to other companies is providing a bit of a spark to the local industry, which is only now unfolding as demonstrated by the reopening of mothballed operations like Edgewood Forest Products in Carrot River. For now, the Zelensky brothers will wait and hope that market conditions improve.