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SAWMILLING

Seeing the Benefits

A new joint venture sawmill involving the Cheslatta Carrier Nation is seeing jobs and benefits staying within the localcommunity.

By Jim Stirling

Involved in Cheslatta Forest Products are (from left) Archie Charlie, Butt 'n top loader owner/operator; James Rakochy, Cheslatta Forest Product manager; and Darry Louis, log truck owner/operator.

The strength of Cheslatta Forest Products lies rooted in the community it's designed to benefit. Cheslatta Forest Products has British Columbia's newest sawmill, a true joint venture with three equal and committed partners. The mill is processing regional wood fibre locally, creating much needed local jobs and forging the catalyst for driving long term economic growth. 

It's a practical, common sense approach that's off to a promising start, generating more than a little excitement and optimism. The Cheslatta Carrier Nation, Ootsa Resources-representing community investors-and Carrier Forest Products have joined forces in the venture. 

The $7.5 million Cheslatta Forest Products modular stud mill began sawing in December 2001. It's located in a rural area on a tree shrouded bluff above Ootsa Lake, about 80 kilometres south of the village of Burns Lake in west central BC. 

The Carrier Cheslatta Nation, through its business partner Nootsenay Enterprises, initiated the project more than two years ago. "It's long been our dream to take control of our own backyard in association with non-natives," explains Mike Robertson, senior policy advisor for the Cheslatta Nation's 100 band members on the reserve. "We wanted to finally reap some benefits by processing wood fibre in the community instead of it passing us by on logging trucks heading elsewhere," he says. "Carrier were the only people who accepted our vision of a joint venture, showing a willingness to give everyone an even part of it." 

Cut-off saw operator and Cheslatta band member, Daniel Troy.  The mill produces 125,000 board feet of studs on a 1-hour shift.

This was not unfamiliar territory for Prince George-based Carrier Forest Products. The company has been successfully involved since 1995 with a similar three-way joint venture involving a native band and local investors in the Chilcotin area of BC. Carrier recognized the Cheslatta proposition as a good fit. "I think this is a model other communities can look to," adds Robertson. 

The new mill's fibre comes from two sources. One is a 10-year, 6.5-million-cubic-metre licence held in partnership by the Cheslatta Nation to salvage wood submerged in the Nechako Reservoir, which includes Ootsa Lake. The second source is 100,000 cubic metres a year for five years of beetle infested wood awarded the joint venture partners in the Lakes Timber Supply Area (TSA).  

"We've got confidence in the integrity of the underwater wood and the upland beetle wood. We believe we have a long term fibre supply and in time some value added components can be added to the operations," predicts Robertson. "We're in it for the long term." 

Access to the underwater log volume is a bitter-sweet irony for the Cheslatta. Fifty years ago, in 1952, water started backing up behind dams creating a huge multi-armed reservoir to provide hydroelectric power for Alcan's aluminium smelting plant in Kitimat. Trouble is, no one got around to telling the Cheslatta until the 11th hour when they were forced to move by the federal government as water flooded their villages, hunting grounds and drowned their livestock. 

The Cheslatta have been fighting for justice ever since. Wes Bohmer is president of Ootsa Resources. It has 63 shareholders representing about 3,700 people, all residents of the Lakes TSA, he says. Many of them have logging experience and Nootsenay and Ootsa Resources run the harvesting operations utilizing local labour and contractors. 

Cheslatta Forest Products has created about 60 jobs in harvesting and milling so far and a planer will add more. Ootsa has restricted jobs to one per household, says Bohmer, which hasn't pleased everyone. But overall, everything's going okay, he says. "I think some people thought a lot of us were a bunch of hicks. But what it's coming to is those who put their money down are glad they did, and those that didn't are kicking themselves." 

But even though the new mill is operating, other things are brewing. Another Alcan-related issue may cause the reservoir levels to change. Alcan is investigating the feasibility of dredging a channel in a constriction of the reservoir to improve power generation capability. A possible side effect of that is dropping water levels elsewhere, exposing more of the drowned tree stems to the air, decimating the value of the wood. 

Carrier Forest Products brings a wealth of sawmilling expertise to the partnership. "Most operators are closing smaller operations in favour of mega-mills in urban areas," says Bill Kordyban, Carrier's president. "We seem to be going in exactly the opposite direction. We're taking the technology to more remote areas. Dad (the late Bill Kordyban Sr) started that trend and I subscribe to the philosophy. I think it's very important to get local involvement," he adds. 

It's that commitment that makes the partnership different. Logs arrive at the mill by truck but barging and/or boom and towing on the lake to a de-watering system are likely alternate fibre delivery methods. Mill production is around 125,000 board feet of studs a shift, Kordyban says. The shifts are arranged into four, 10-hour days so the mill's beehive burner is never without fuel for more than an hour, thus maintaining a continuous high temperature burn. Waste disposal was a hurdle for Cheslatta Forest Products. 

The prohibitive cost of alternatives to burning would have put the project at risk. The burner operating guidelines, new jobs and the mill's relative isolation and micro-climate were factors in granting approval for the burner. The mill was built in modules at Carrier Forest Products' plant for shipment and assembly on site. It's a two-line mill with a chip 'n saw for smaller diameter stems to 25 centimetres and a six-saw scragg for material 25 to 46 centimetres. Delivering wood to the mill infeed is an interesting challenge. Minimizing log breakage is a key consideration, says Kelly Solmonson, Carrier's modular mill co-ordinator. 

"We try to hot mill as much as possible," he says, utilizing a butt 'n top for feeding the mill. The machine has the advantage of control and power, he notes. But another method is to use self-loading logging trucks to reclaim decked wood and deliver it to the infeed. "We're trying to make certain we have our eyes open to new ideas," says Solmonson. "We can't afford to be careless with the wood." He knows it makes sense to get log handling practices under control right off the bat and not start out with bad habits. 

The bucking deck's six saws are vector driven on a cam resulting in an ultra smooth circular rotation. "We're quite pleased with that," says Solmonson. "And we're training operators to become increasingly efficient." Solmonson says the mill was bucking 246 centimetre lengths but the flexibility is there to cut to 254 centimetres. And, he adds, if the marketplace says there's room for a 274 centimetre stud, that, too, is a possibility for the future. 

The mill has two 46-centimetre Cambio debarkers and a 76-centimetre model. The smaller machines are on a sliding base so production is maintained if one is down. The machines have been upgraded with Lindsay air bag tension systems. Carrier also updated an older but unused chip 'n saw, equipping it with new computerized controls, PLC and program. 

Key knives were added, removing the sawfiler's need for babbiting. Downstream flow feeds on to a green chain and unscrambler where slabs and other debris are dropped and conveyed to a Forano chipper also equipped with key knives. Solmonson says the line's board edger is a very simple, manual machine although the setworks have been upgraded. 

There are two stackers, one each for 2x4 and 2x6 material. In a neat little feature, boards can be pulled from the upstream unscrambler for the stacker operator to cut strips. The six-saw scragg on the large log side is another Carrier creation, with a log turner in the scragg and a sharp chain with hold down rolls. It makes a 10-centimetre cant with 2x4s and 2x6s from the sideboards. Those sideboards are transferred at right angles to line up with a bull edger. 

After edging, the flow joins the chip 'n saw line to stackers and air drying. "We want to keep things simple," says Solmonson. "We try to tweak everything and hopefully it will pay dividends." It will. There's a community depending on it. 

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