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A leader in cedar

BC’s TRC Cedar has grown to become the largest producer of western red cedar rails and posts in North America, and has a neat little side business in packaging cedar mulch.

By Jim Stirling

The cedar TRC works with may be magnificent in size, but presents challenges because it is riddled with rot.

For eons, outflow winds from the Rocky Mountains have shaken the cedar of the upper Fraser River valley in east central British Columbia. For generations, loggers and sawmillers have looked to the mixed, wet-belt forests for opportunities. Creaming the big spruce has been easy. But the cedar, magnificent in size but riddled with rot, presented challenges. Sawlogs are few and far between in most stands.

The economics of shake and shingle manufacture vary. But it appears a company has discovered the right formula for the cedar: take what Mother Nature offers to produce key products and utilize and manage all of the resource. The people at TRC Cedar Ltd in McBride, BC don’t pretend to have all the answers. But they have wrestled with most of the questions that beg them. In 10 years, the company has worked itself into the position of being the number one producer of western red cedar rails and posts in North America. Manufacturing the under-utilized cedar this way in a tariff-free environment has made TRC a major economic driver and employer in the McBride area.

It hasn’t always been so. A cedar mill has occupied the TRC site since the 1960s, but the various operators’ fortunes have been mixed over the years. Tom Ryan ventured into McBride seeking a cedar source to support his picket fence business in Creston, BC. It was 1992 and Ryan recognized the potential and ended up buying the mill and TRC Cedar was on its way.

It was tough sledding early on, recalls Shane Bressette, TRC’s woodlands manager. Circumstances were aided in 1996 with the award of a five-year, non-replaceable forest licence designed to mitigate western green looper damage in regional hemlock stands. That helped prove TRC was a viable operation, says Bressette, and was instrumental in the 2001 award of a 15-year, non-replaceable licence. The 80,000-cubic-metre/year licence is about 65 per cent cedar/hemlock and located in the eastern extremity of the Prince George Timber Supply Area. Bressette says the last timber supply review for the area excluded about 30 per cent as inoperable under current management practices.

That includes a good chunk of TRC’s licence. It means extending the boundaries and setting harvesting precedents. “But the 15-year licence meant we could start long-term planning and getting ahead on things like road building,” adds Bressette. Harvesting cedar is trickier Harvesting cedar is trickier than SPF because of the varying log quality within a given stem. “One of the advantages we have is that we’re after the lower quality log, which is the bulk of the volume. We try for full utilization of the shallow shell timber for posts and rails,” he says. The higher quality logs are sorted, sold or traded for other values.

TRC employs four main ground-based logging contractors and one cable operator. It’s a predominantly winter game with the cable yarder picking up about 15 per cent of the volume. Better quality cedar is frequently found on the steeper slopes. All timber is hand felled to minimize breakage. The cedar averages about 1.2 metres in diameter. “Bucking helps keep control of log quality in cedar, reading each log and extracting the most value from the stand,” says Bressette. The ground-based systems can—with the right equipment—harvest slopes around 45 per cent. One contractor, G6 Industries of McBride, uses a Cat D4H with Esco swing grapple for skidding its steeper slopes.

Trent Gainer (right) and Shane Bressette of TRC Cedar. The H & R Cedar brand on the packages is the sales arm for marketing the post, rails and mulch.

Time spent bucking and sorting means the ground contractors average seven to eight loads a day, with about four loads from the cable operation. TRC employs a partial cutting system. “We use the term diversity retention,” says Trent Gainer, woodlands technician with the company. “We emulate natural disturbance patterns. It’s not an area with large wildfire openings. We try to mimic what happens in the forest.

We’re fortunate in that we conduct our own silviculture with responsibility to free to grow, and that allows us to be innovative with harvesting systems.” Planting began at around 250,000 trees annually and is expected to increase to the 400,000-tree level, based on the 80,000 cubic metre cut. Cedar, spruce and some hemlock and balsam are planted. “We copy what was there. They’re unique stands and very productive sites if you do it well,” adds Gainer. TRC stresses planting trees as soon after harvesting as possible. It keeps brush invasion down and reduces silviculture costs.

The company’s planting contractor seeks suitable micro sites for planting seedlings—right up to a stump, for example—and using natural planting sites without mounding, brush piling or prescribed burning. (TRC’s approach to harvesting and silviculture has led to the establishment of research trials in collaboration with the University of Northern British Columbia). TRC has implemented two recent improvements adjacent to its mill site. One is the addition of a weigh scale, to maximize payloads.

The other is an expanded sort yard. Rail and post, sawlogs, shake, pulp and other material is separated. The sort yard is a community log source. Specialty cedar manufacturers in the valley can acquire the material they need. Another post and rail company—Cedar 3 Products, which hires about 15 people—gets logs they require from the sort yard. TRC’s mill is a labour intensive operation, employing 45 people directly and running two daily shifts. It’s a classic value-added, re-manufacturing plant. Two loads of wood a shift—that’s about 70 cubic metres—supports 20 to 22 jobs each shift.

It’s a fast moving working environment in the mill, requiring steady concentration and co-ordination on the part of its operators. Suitable post and rail cedar is introduced to the mill by front-end loader. A cut-off saw operator appraises each log and assigns into two sorts: rail or post. The former is produced in 3.2 metre lengths, the latter 1.6, with some variations. The separate post and rail production lines use knives to clean off bark and rot and manufacture the product. Posts are completed with holes to accommodate the rails and both are shaped for easy assembly.

The mill produces between 1,700 and 1,800 pieces a shift, two-thirds in rails. TRC’s cedar posts and rails have proven a hit in US markets, including supplying product to Home Depot and Wal-Mart. Cedar availability in the US is declining and that has helped propel TRC into the number one producer spot for cedar posts and rails in North America, with about 70 per cent of the market. And it is a steadily growing market. “Posts and rails don’t have the spikes in demand like lumber. There’s more consistency and increasing volume each year,” says Bressette. “That’s a huge factor in maintaining steady programs and employment. We’re tariff-free, all our products are classified as landscape.”

That’s also the key word in a growing demand for a secondary product TRC is marketing successfully. The company recovers all cedar bark, rot sections and other fibre waste for landscape mulch. After the mill’s beehive burner was banished, the mill’s waste collection system was re-configured to collect the material. It is hogged, metered for the right consistency and texture and bagged or shipped in bulk form.

The neat little hog and bagging system runs two shifts a day from around February to early summer. The bags each hold two cubic feet of aromatic red cedar mulch. Around a million bags a season are produced. The mulch is sold in Canada and the US under the H & R Cedar brand, TRC’s sales arm for post and rails and the mulch. H & R is also owned by Tom Ryan and has contributed to another market development synergy.

TRC Cedar is the first in the post and rail business to be certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). The custody chain is easier to track with TRC controlling the harvesting, manufacture and marketing systems directly. “We are subject to bi-yearly audits to make sure we maintain standards and strive for continuing improvement,” adds Gainer.

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