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A century of Service to B.C. forests
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the B.C. Forest Service, which at one point was one of the main engines driving access to the tremendous forest resources in Canada’s number one forestry province.
By Jim Stirling
One hundred years is a mere flick of an historical eyelash. But in the context of British Columbia’s existence as a Canadian province, the 100th anniversary of the B.C. Forest Service (BCFS) is a significant milestone that reflects the province’s growth and development. The forest service was the engine driving access to the forest resources, which in turn has helped create and sustain lifestyles of the province for a century.
Forestry-related activity was
The creation of a department of forestry within the Ministry of Lands was the instrument of change. It came about in February 1912 on the recommendation of the Fulton Royal Commission (1909-1910). Soon-to-be timber baron H.R. MacMillan was appointed its first chief forester.
A year later, B.C. was divided into forest districts. The initial 11 were on Vancouver Island, in Vancouver, Vernon, Nelson, Cranbrook, Kamloops, Lillooet, Tete Jaune, Fort George, Hazelton and Prince Rupert. They helped support the thrust into the hinterlands of what appeared to be B.C.’s never ending forests.
The BCFS broke new ground from its inception. It was investigating wood product diversification in 1917 with the Aeroplane Spruce Program in co-operation with the Imperial Munitions Board. And, in a remarkable example of foresight, the interior’s first silvicultural outpost was created in 1924 with the forest service’s Aleza Lake Experimental Station, east of Prince George.
The service’s engineering branch became the go-to section. It was charged with the design and construction of forest roads, road systems and bridges. The division set up shop in February 1950 with Fred Slaney, logging engineer, and Pete Hemphill and Bob Thomas, two recent university graduates. Their first assignment was to design a location for the Fly Hills Access Road near Salmon Arm. By 1955, the division had completed 579 miles of reconnaissance; 439 miles of location surveys; 30 miles of annual road maintenance; 21 investigation and design projects; three major projects completed and 200 land title problems solved. By 1964, 4,357 miles of reconnaissance; 2,120 miles of location survey and 855 miles of new road construction had been completed under division crews.
Road travel in the early days was strictly white-knuckle by today’s standards.
And within the forest service, things sometimes got done in slightly unorthodox ways. Consider the engineering branch’s right-of-way acquisition functions. Apparently, the conversation in 1953 went something like this: “I need some help. Somebody here claims the forest service doesn’t own this. Will you please read these files and find out what it’s all about”. It wasn’t something the recipient of the request was familiar with, but he made some notes and drafted a reply. The reply came back. “You’d better look after this. You seem to be an authority on it.” That was the beginning of the Land Titles Office under Frank Johnson.
It was a heady time of activity for the engineering division in the 1960s. It was designed to serve other divisions within the forest service as well as other government departments and the public. Their assignments included pondage clearing projects with a mix of their own people and equipment and those of contractors.
The heavy duty artillery was recruited to move some of the timber that would become inundated after construction of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam on the Peace River. The exercise was an operation devoid of First Nations or environmental concerns or much fibre salvage and utilization. Cat D9s were the workhorses. Usually employed in pairs, they used a ball and chain hooked between them to cut a swathe through the forest. The ball was eight feet in diameter with a steel shell an inch thick. It was attached to two 100 foot anchor chains with each link weighing 100 pounds.
That part of the operation was overshadowed by the tree crushers. Manufactured by Letourneau, the first one on the Peace job weighed 175 tons and moved on two spiked rollers, each seven feet in diameter. The machine spent much time bogged down—it typically took five D9s to pull it out—until crews realized the massive machine was very much site specific. A ‘baby’ 80 tonne machine was recruited for the job a year later. The larger machine, stripped of its innards, sits as a curiosity on the entrance to the town of Mackenzie.
Ray Williston was B.C.’s Minister of Lands, Forests and Water Resources from 1956 to 1972 and was a staunch supporter of the BCFS’s engineering services division. Williston was asked at the beginning of the Peace River job why the engineering division was given responsibility for the work.
Williston’s reported response summarized the times. “There are two good reasons for that. One, because I say so. Two, because the premier says so.”
The forest service also ran a ‘navy’. The service’s marine station originated on Savona Island in the early 1920s. Essentially it served as a maintenance centre for a fleet of large wood and steel launches used in coastal waters by the forest service. But like much within the organization, the marine stations’ responsibilities grew with passing years. Between 1945-55, 42 new launches were acquired to transport personnel, machinery and materials to remote road and bridge construction sites and crews for fire fighting.
A further 48 craft were added between 1956 and 1975. They were designed for differing functions. They included ranger launches, scaling launches, cruising crew vessels to more specialized boats like self propelled landing barges, some with helicopter launch pads. Other craft included jet propelled riverboats, tugs for debris control on the reservoirs, boom boats, debris burning baskets and an experimental underwater logging barge for use on Ootsa Lake. But many of those vessels ceased to be cost effective and by the recession of the 1980s, some 75 per cent of them were gone. The forest service switched largely to renting vessels for their operations.
The engineering branch in its divergent and growing divisions developed many new products and uses for them. Air photo interpretation, for example, which became a useful tool for road reconnaissance and was adapted to resource value mapping and later to tracking and identifying beetle infestations. Dick Scarisbrook, design engineer in the branch, was dubbed the ‘father of the Glulam bridge’ concept. Other projects included equipment development for cone collection, scarifying and brush control.
Comments from workers in the engineering branch and throughout the forest service reveal much about the times. Pete Hemphill, who headed the engineering section in 1967, commented: “Everyone working in the division in those years was doing what they wanted to do and enjoying it. We were newcomers to the forest service and not part of an old boy network. We had to rely on ourselves, our own ingenuity. This developed a very self reliant, cohesive work unit.”
And the last word to construction engineer Cym Williams: “No history about the early days of the engineering services division would be complete without recognizing the contribution made by the wives. Many of them spent from months to years living in the timber camps and many are the tales that could be told about risky trips over slippery winter roads be it either to a doctor, to go shopping or to get the children off to school. The success of the division owes a great deal to the happy and friendly atmosphere that the wives were able to create within the project communities.”
This page and all contents ©1996-2015 Logging and Sawmilling Journal (L&S J) and TimberWest Journal.