Or CLICK to download a pdf of this article
Industry rebound leads to ramping up
Harvesting activities are ramping up for Vancouver Island logger Matt Roberts —and as a result, he’s invested in some new Link-Belt iron to do log processing, log loading and roadbuilding on the rugged B.C. Coast.
By Paul MacDonald
Things have been very busy lately for stump-to-dump logging operation Wahkash Contracting of Campbell River, B.C.—and company owner Matt Roberts couldn’t be happier.
From its base on Vancouver Island, Wahkash runs four logging camps on the B.C. Coast, three of them stump-to-dump logging operations, and the other doing roadbuilding.
As the B.C. forest industry has started to turn the corner thanks to very robust demand for lumber and timber in China, and the start of a rebound in the U.S. housing market, Wahkash Contracting has been updating its equipment fleet. It stands at about 30 pieces, including everything from processors to graders.
In a true understatement, the industry turnaround is tremendously welcome. From 2007 to 2009, things were extremely hard for the industry, notes Roberts. “The industry really took a kicking. We kept the equipment we had running and tried to keep our people busy—we did what we had to do, to survive.”
The condition of their equipment positioned them well, however. “One of the big reasons why we survived is that our equipment was in good shape going into the downturn, and that carried us through that really bad period. On top of that, our heavy duty mechanics were able to essentially make honey out of crap, and that kept us going. Our mechanics were key to us getting through a very tough time.” All of their employees, from the bush to the office, were resourceful and reigned in spending, wherever possible, he said.
At the time, Wahkash was working only for forest company Interfor, but it has since broadened out its business, and now has additional contracts for Western Forest Products and TimberWest.
“A contract came up with TimberWest that involved a lot of hoe chucking,” says Roberts. “We soon realized that with our older iron, we needed to step it up a bit.” That meant picking up a Link-Belt 350 processor with a Waratah HTH 624C head, then a Link-Belt 350 log loader, and most recently, a 350 roadbuilder, all from dealer, Parker Pacific. “We bought some used iron from Parker Pacific, as well, to update our equipment,” Roberts added.
The Link-Belt 350/Waratah combination marks the entry of Wahkash into processing; previously, they had contracted this out. “Doing the processing ourselves gives us more control, and it seems to work better with us doing it vs. contracting it out,” says Roberts. They had tried several different processing contractors, and it just seemed difficult to get the right fit with their operations. “Processing is such an integral part of our operation, and sometimes the contracted equipment was breaking down. We were trying to do 1,000 cubic metres a day through the sort, and if a processor is down, the whole parade comes to a stop. Buying the Link-Belt/Waratah has been a good move for us.
“It’s a good combination—the 350 has lots of power, and good reach. And some of the guys who work for us had used the Waratah heads before, and they said that is the only head we would want. And it’s worked out—we’re really happy with it.”
The LB 350X2 forestry model is equipped with a six cylinder Isuzu turbocharged diesel engine with electronic fuel control, and is rated at 271 hp. It has an operating weight of 99,848 lbs and offers swing torque of 110,634 lb. ft. Swing speed is up to 7.5 rpm, and it has a maximum travel speed of 3.2 mph.
The 350 has a high wide track gauge undercarriage with x-pattern carbody, and is equipped with full length track guards.
While Wahkash does not have hard numbers of the fuel efficiency of the 350 machines, Roberts noted they are better than the comparable machines they have. “It’s the same engine as we have on our Hitachi machines, but the Link-Belt machines are 10 or 12 years newer and the engines are more computerized.”
And they are very happy with the service they receive from Parker Pacific, he added.
Parker Pacific has an office/shop right in Campbell River, and Roberts or a crew member can drive in to pick up parts, or ask a question about the new machines. This compares with some other dealers located down Vancouver Island, who use a drop box in Campbell River for parts.
Roberts added that Parker Pacific is breaking ground on a new shop in Campbell River. “It’s pretty clear to us that they are committed—and service is such a big part of the package.
“It does not matter what brand you have,” he adds. “We’ve owned lots of different brands of heavy equipment, and they all have their problems at times, and they all break down. Having Parker Pacific in town to help with any problems we might have means a lot to us.”
In addition to the Link-Belt equipment, they have a fair number of Hitachi pieces, some Kobelco machines, a Madill 044 grapple yarder, a Cypress 7280 Super Snorkle, a Cypress 7230 yarder, and a Madill 075 log loader.
“We do kind of have a bit of everything, but in the past, we’ve tried to focus on one brand, to keep things at a reasonable level in terms of parts inventory at the camps. It’s good to be able to have filters that will cover a number of machines, rather than having to keep a whole bunch of filters on hand to service a bunch of machines.”
In the past, their focus was on Hitachi equipment which was supplied and serviced by the Campbell River branch of Wajax. Wajax has since consolidated that office and shop with their Nanaimo facility, about an hour to the south.
They have service trucks at each of the four camps, and there is a shop in Campbell River. “We do a little bit at the shop, but we haven’t really utilized it a lot because the equipment is busy now, and we end up doing a lot of the equipment work in camp.” Between the four camps, they have five heavy duty mechanics.
While they have added new, and newer, pieces of equipment to their fleet, Wahkash has also been very resourceful, and made use of what had been retired equipment.
“We’ve resurrected some equipment,” said Roberts. “There was stuff that I put away in the boneyard that I thought we’d use as parts machines, and it’s ended up coming out of retirement, and we’ve put it back to work.”
This includes a Hitachi 300 and a Kobelco SK 400. “I didn’t think we’d be using this equipment again, but it’s out there, working for us, and doing a good job.”
Understandably, and like a lot of other logging contractors, they are still working away on updating and upgrading equipment after a very lean couple of years. “We had stepped up maintenance to keep equipment going during the downturn, and then all of sudden, there was all this work, and we had to get busy,” explains Roberts.
“We needed four new undercarriages, we needed line boring done, we have seven off-highway logging trucks, and every one of them needed tires.” He added that they couldn’t do it all at once. They really had to think carefully where they would spend the money to improve equipment because although they were busy, it takes a while to get the cash flow happening. “A set of tires for a truck is $20,000 and an undercarriage for a log loader is $35,000—we’re talking about a lot of money, and the work has to be phased in.”
Though they are busy now, and their equipment is working well, there’s still some work and upgrading to be done down the road, says Roberts. “All our Hitachi log loaders are clicking in at around 20,000 hours—they are a good product, but eventually, equipment gets tired.”
And those further equipment investments will be made in time, as Roberts remains optimistic about logging on the B.C Coast. He has seen a good number of ups and downs in the business since he started at Wahkash Contracting in 1985, and eventually bought out its original owners in 1996. These days, Matt and his wife, Shelley, who oversees the office, are looking at bringing in partners of their own. “We’ve got good, loyal employees who want a crack at things—and buying in worked for me, and it will work for them, too.”
The coming year will mark a further change for Roberts. The company has its own DeHavilland Beaver to service the camps. Roberts is a licenced pilot, and had been helping out their main pilot on flying the Beaver. With the semi-retirement of their pilot, Roberts will now be doing more flying out to the camps, and will be based more in Campbell River, than in the camps. “It will be a change,” he says. “I like to be out in the bush, and hands-on. But we’ve got good people in the camps who we can rely on to do a good job.”
And he’s hopeful that things will continue to improve for the industry, and for the contractor sector. Industry analysts are calling for high—possibly record—lumber prices over the next two years. If the larger forest companies are doing well, they’d be wise to share at least some of that good fortune with the contracting sector, to keep it healthy.
“We want to work with the major companies, and continue to get out of this cycle that we had been in for the last three years, and hopefully grow together,” says Roberts.
Matt Roberts (above) with the company’s DeHavilland Beaver, which is used to service their logging camps. Roberts is a licenced pilot, and had been helping out their main pilot on flying the Beaver. But with the semi-retirement of their pilot, Roberts will now be doing more flying out to the camps, and will be based more in Campbell River, than in the camps.
This page and all contents ©1996-2015 Logging and Sawmilling Journal (L&S J) and TimberWest Journal.