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Steep slope skills
Veteran logger Clayton Mattson brings a wide variety of skills to his work harvesting wood on steep slopes in southeastern B.C. for Canfor’s newly-reopened Radium sawmill.
By Tony Kryzanowski
Some timber harvesting operations can require a contractor with the skills of a surgeon, with logging environments so specialized that it takes an experienced logger with a unique set of skills, tools, and experience to achieve a safe and productive outcome.
That’s what forest company Canfor got when it hired veteran B.C. logger Clayton Mattson to supply logs to its sawmill in Radium as a stump-to-dump contractor. It recently re-opened the dimension lumber sawmill in this southeastern B.C. community after investing $38.5 million into its operations. The mill sat idle for about three years after a closure due to low lumber prices.
Mattson brought three important ingredients to the table—considerable local knowledge and experience in steep slope logging, a long history with the sawmill, and the right tools to bring the wood fibre economically to roadside. An avid outdoorsman, Mattson has been logging for over 30 years.
“Closure of the sawmill had a major impact in the community because suddenly over 150 jobs were gone in the sawmill alone,” says Mattson. “Now, everyone seems to have a really upbeat feeling about the Canfor sawmill reopening and improving the local economy, and it certainly was positive for us being chosen as one of their contractors.”
He owns M & H Logging with his wife, Diane, and operates both a conventional mechanical harvesting and a cable yarding line of equipment based in Brisco, north of Radium. This combination is ideal for harvesting the local wood basket, situated on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains which by the end of winter can accumulate as much as three metres of snow. They log year-round and currently have 10 employees, which includes Mattson’s daughter, Amanda, and son-in-law, Blaine Jopp. Both are highly experienced in operating any piece of logging equipment in the fleet.
Mattson has a contract to harvest 100,000 cubic metres of wood annually for Canfor, with about 50 per cent harvested using conventional mechanical harvesting equipment and 50 per cent using his cable yarding system.
The wood diet in his cutblocks consists of lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, spruce, balsam, larch and cedar, so there are several sorts involved at the landing where the logs are processed into short logs. Adding to the challenge is a mountain pine beetle infestation within the lodgepole pine wood fibre basket that requires harvesting within a very defined time interval before the wood becomes too dry for the mill to produce lumber. Overall, the logs range from 6” to 12” in diameter.
Mattson explains that each cutblock has its own unique challenges.
The wood in the company’s harvesting blocks can be situated in slopes anywhere from near zero to well over a 50 per cent slope. So he has added a few individual pieces of equipment to his fleet that help him overcome just about every challenge that these logging cutblocks present. For example, his mechanical harvesting fleet includes a Cat 527 tracked grapple skidder for retrieving logs on slopes up to 35 per cent as well as an older Cat 518 cable skidder. Each provides just the right solution for retrieving logs on slopes where a conventional skidder isn’t an option.
“When it is too steep, it’s too wet, or we are dealing with unstable terrain, the grapple Cat is the most aggressive option within the conventional logging style,” says Mattson. The tracked grapple skidder transports logs to a location where they can then be forwarded using a conventional rubber-tired grapple skidder.
His cable yarding fleet is also versatile. While it is used primarily to retrieve hand fallen logs over shorter distances in slope over 45 degrees, he also has the capability to rig up a long distance cable yarding system where there are no other options.
Mattson recently added a John Deere 959K tilting feller buncher to his toolbox. His main reason for purchasing a tilter is his belief that it will deliver higher productivity than a flat-bottomed feller buncher in this steep slope work environment. It replaces an older John Deere 903 flat-bottomed feller buncher, which Mattson has kept as a back-up machine.
“The advantage I see in a tilter is that it will produce more on steep slopes,” says Mattson. “The old, flat-bottomed unit will work on ground that is just as steep, but because you are working at such an angle, you obviously can’t produce as much wood compared to a tilter.” Also, the tilter is designed to work in that environment, so it is the right tool for the job.
“If I work the tilter 10 less hours a week for the same amount of production, by the end of the year I have put that many fewer hours on it, so it is still holding its value,” says Mattson.
He selected a John Deere-brand tilter because he says he has received good equipment performance from John Deere equipment ever since he purchased his first 550 crawler dozer over 30 years ago. He also receives excellent service support from Deere dealer, Brandt Tractor.
Assisting the feller buncher is a John Deere 648 grapple skidder, as well as a Cat 527 grapple skidder and Cat 518 cable skidder.
The Canfor sawmill in Radium has transitioned entirely to cut-to-length logs, so M & H Logging operates a John Deere 2054 carrier with a Waratah 622 processing head to merchandize logs either at the landing or roadside. Rounding out their fleet is a brand new John Deere 2454 log loader.
“We went with the bigger carrier because of the quad trailers being used in short logging,” says Mattson. “Canfor has gone to a quad trailer which has two bunks on it, so you need a little bit bigger loader to lift the empty back trailer off the truck before loading.”
The cable yarding fleet consists of a John Deere 690 excavator with a winch package for short distance yarding. The winch cable can extend about 600’ either up or down the slope. They also have a Skylead Equipment 40’ tower, which is the main yarder, equipped with a Maki carriage, as well as a long line yarder system for yarding logs from at least a kilometre away.
“We’ve got 6,000 feet of skyline and we’ve done as far as four intermediate supports in one line,” says Mattson. “So basically we are cutting out the road completely on the mountain. We just go right up the mountain with the cable and bring the wood right down. Some are totally airborne, and some are dragging on the ground a little bit.”
The decision whether to cable or conventional log is made by Canfor prior to logging. Mattson follows the site plan provided by the sawmill.
“The information package when we get signed into a block tells us all the terrain stability issues, the water issues, and how each part of the block will be logged,” says Mattson. “I’ve been dealing with these mountains my entire career so we’ve grown to basically deal with whatever terrain the block has to offer us.”
He adds that the main determining factor of how the equipment is used on site is the location of the landings. While the company would prefer to forward all their logs to roadside, the steep terrain simply does not permit that option and landings are required.
“Ideally, we’d log at roadside without any landings,” says Mattson. “Unfortunately, the mountains don’t allow that. Landings are really an extra cost. If there are landings, it’s because they are needed. It’s because of the steep slope around it and you have to move your wood to that landing to process it to load it out.”
The majority of the wood harvested by M & H Logging is lodgepole pine as part of the overall effort to keep the beetle under control. Mattson says it’s really nothing new for local loggers, as they have been dealing with beetle-impacted stands in that part of B.C. for a couple of decades.
“For the better part of that time, we’ve been working more to control it, rather than catching up to it like other areas of B.C.,” says Mattson. “We have used different styles of logging to try to save some of the pine forest, like trying to thin out the pine so the beetle wouldn’t come in there. That seemed to work for quite a few years but then the beetle went crazy and now we are trying to salvage everything that we can as far as pine goes.”
It hasn’t really influenced the company’s equipment selection and sorting requirements, although since the sawmill has re-opened, M & H Logging is having to conduct more sorts primarily because of Canfor’s cut-to-length requirements at the sawmill.
Mattson says it is definitely becoming harder to find good chainsaw operators to work in their yarding operations, but added that the company has been lucky to have many long term employees. The Mattsons also feel fortunate that their daughter and son-in-law have become key components in day-to-day business operations, and there is definitely the intent for them to eventually take over full ownership of the logging business.
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