Alberta logger Crater Enterprises is partnering with Parks Canada to help restore forest ecosystems in Jasper National Park.
By Tony Kryzanowski
An Alberta company has proven that careful mechanical logging can play a vital role in helping to protect national park communities like Jasper from wildfire and assist park managers in restoring natural ecosystems. “It’s a neat challenge,” says Crater Enterprises project supervisor Ron Zapisocki. “It’s not conventional logging. It’s not even conventional thinning. In my view, it’s landscape logging.” Park officials, however, prefer to call it integrated vegetation management. Crater Enterprises, based in Grande Cache, didn’t bid on the project for the money. This landscape logging project, which spanned four months from November to this past February, generated only 10,000 tonnes of fibre—about the same amount the company would typically generate in a week.
However, Zapisocki says that there is a certain amount of prestige to being the first mechanical forestry contractor to successfully partner with Jasper National Park to achieve specific forest management objectives in this popular Rocky Mountain park. So in this case, the historical significance of the project was a greater incentive than the revenue. So far, all has gone according to plan with considerable positive feedback from the public. Crater Enterprises has a lot of careful logging experience, having worked on a number of projects in the Grande Cache area aimed at maintaining and improving habitat.
The goal there is to help sustain the threatened woodland caribou population in the area. The work in Jasper National Park is part of the Foothills Model Forest FireSmart/ForestWise Communities project. According to Alan Westhaver, Jasper National Park vegetation fire specialist and project manager, the project has two objectives. They want to reduce the risk of high intensity wildfires by reducing surface and canopy fuels, and improve the fireguard around highly developed areas in the park. The second objective is to restore the forest ecosystem back to a more natural state. He says that forests in this area of the park evolved with a cycle of frequent, low intensity fire that maintained a mosaic of grasslands, aspen woodlands and open coniferous forest, and also prevented large build-ups of fuel to feed wildfires.
Eighty years of fire suppression has resulted in much heavier fuel loads, more dense forest, loss of many grasslands, and significant reduction of open pine and Douglas fir savanna. That is the unique aspect of this project, says Westhaver: “To combine the ecological needs of the forest with the requirement for protecting this community from wildfire.” All told, the project this year will treat 100 hectares immediately adjacent to the town of Jasper and the nearby Lake Edith cottage development.
Separate approaches have been developed and implemented in each of the many different types of forest found in this area. Zapisocki sees a niche developing for logging contractors who are able to conduct vegetation management using a FireSmart/ForestWise approach. “Based on what happened in Kelowna and San Diego last summer with the wildfires,” he says, “my thoughts are that insurance companies will demand this kind of vegetation management if you are going to live in the wild and urban interface area. If you are going to build a $1.5 million home and expect insurance, the insurance company is going to expect you to manage your lands so that you reduce the threat of wildfire.”
The first challenge for Crater Enterprises was to develop an economic plan where Parks Canada could recover its costs from the income generated by wood sales. If it couldn’t be done on a cost recovery basis, the project would not have proceeded. In cases such as this, or for highway construction projects, where trees must be removed for management purposes, Parks Canada policy permits the sale of wood to offset project costs and environmental protection measures. However, policies banning commercial harvesting or other forms of resource extraction on park lands remain firmly in force.
Environmentalists are watching carefully to ensure that projects like this one are not operated as money-making ventures. Once Crater Enterprises was announced as the successful bidder and its proposal was accepted, the next challenge was to formulate a plan to harvest the contracted amount of wood within the specified time frame, under very stringent environmental guidelines. “All our machines are running bio-oil and food grade greases, and have double-walled fuel tanks,” says Zapisocki. “We have no fuel storage on site, we run our machines down to empty at night so that we don’t have them sitting overnight with fuel—a reportable spill in the park is half a litre.”
Also, the company stations its equipment on tarps at night and its harvester/processor head is placed in a spill containment berm in the event of a leak. Berms are also in place whenever the equipment is refueled. Equipment selection was an important part of the planning process. Crater Enterprises had a very specific list of features it wanted when it went shopping for equipment. “Low ground pressure was a key,” says Zapisocki. “The harvester/processor had to be a tilter with zero tail swing, and something small that still had a centre boom on it.” The company selected the MHT 20-ton, leveling harvester, with its ultra-short tail swing and ability to climb slopes up to 60 per cent. It came equipped with a LogMax 5000 harvester/processor head. Complementing the harvester is a Rottne Rapid 12 tonne forwarder. “We put street pads on the harvester/processor to reduce the environmental footprint versus a single grouser track,” says Zapisocki.
The company installed fibre rolls on the head, valued at about $25,000, to reduce tree damage. It has also hired an experienced cut-to-length harvester/processor operator from New Brunswick to operate the equipment. Rocan Forestry BC Ltd from Prince George supplied the equipment on a rental basis, with an option to purchase depending on how much work the company can earmark for the unit in future. Thinning must occur in an extremely random pattern to create diversity within the forest and avoid obvious indications that mechanical harvesting has occurred. Because slash is being piled and burned, the operator must process the wood over the side instead of the traditional practice of working in front of himself and then walking on the branches. Part of the forwarder’s task is to gather and pile as much of the slash as possible for hand crews.
Their job is to manually pile tops and
limbs, further reduce stump heights, trim excessive understorey trees and
burn the debris piles. “Normally it is one hour of forwarding time to two
hours of processing time,” says Zapisocki. “In this case, it’s three hours
of forwarding time to one hour of processing time just because of managing
the slash.” The MHT harvester has demonstrated that it is the proper tool
for this job because of its strong production numbers, low ground impact,
reliability, and quiet operation. “It sounds like a sewing machine,” says
Zapisocki. “Parks Canada is very pleased with this machine because it is
working 10 to 15 metres off a road where 30 people walk by every day, and
they can barely hear it.” He says a project like this may seem like a
formidable challenge, but logging has evolved to a point where many of
these environmental requirements are simply a small stretch from normal
operating practices. For example, he says that double-walled fuel tanks
are a standard for Crater Enterprises now. One of the biggest challenges
was organizing the species sorts and marketing the wood so that Parks
Canada could recover its costs, while meeting its fire prevention and
ecosystem restoration objectives.
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