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April 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal


Community forest tips

There is more interest now in starting up community forests with the BC government creating new opportunities, but proponents might pick up some pointers from the province’s largest such forest, the Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation.


By Paul MacDonald

One of the mandates of the Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation is to use local contractors and suppliers as much as possible. From roadbuilding and harvesting right through to silviculture, it’s all done locally.

Bob Clarke, general manager of the Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation (RCFC), is happy to talk about the town’s experience in setting up British Columbia’s largest community forest.

One of the things he tells people—especially community representatives who may not have been involved in the forest industry—is that there are definite risks with these ventures. “There is money to be made in this industry,” he says. “But there’s a lot of money to be lost, and it can be lost very fast.”

Clarke has been getting a fair number of inquiries of late, especially with the provincial government creating new opportunities for more community forests through a claw-back of logging rights. The province is taking back 20 per cent of the timber held by the major licensees to make more timber available for its market-based, timber-pricing program, and for First Nations and resource communities. It’s these resource communities that are considering setting up community forests, and they are logically looking at RCFC, a long-established community forest and a success story, as a model.

About half of RCFC’s 100,000 cubic metre cut goes to its industry partners, three local mill operations. The timber is sold to them at cost, and the remaining 50 per cent is sold on the open market.

Many of these communities are seeking more control over a local resource, but have yet to work out the details on how to manage that forest resource, longer term and on a day-to-day basis.

The town of Revelstoke put a lot of effort into determining how its forest should be managed, and that effort has paid off over the years with a well-run—and profitable—community forest.

When the idea of a community forest was first being considered in the 1980s, Revelstoke was in dire straits. The town had seen 20 years of boom times, with the construction of dams for BC Hydro and railway tunnel construction for CP Rail. But that came to a close, and unemployment rates rocketed up. “When all that work ended,” says Clarke, “people looked around and there was this realization that even though we were surrounded by forests, we were getting very little in terms of economic benefits, whether in jobs or economic spinoffs.”

RCFC’s log sort: the community forest’s website includes log prices at the sort, sometimes a touchy area. “We try to be as open as we can without divulging people’s business,” says general manager Bob Clarke.

Although there was some local sawmilling activity, much of the timber was leaving the Revelstoke area and headed to mills in other communities. Only an estimated four per cent of timber resources surrounding Revelstoke was actually being milled in the town.

The town moved the community forest idea forward over a number of years to the point when, in 1992—when there was a change in ownership in the Tree Farm Licence (TFL) in the region—they were ready. “It came down to a kind of put your money where your mouth is situation with the ownership change, and Revelstoke jumped at it,” relates Clarke.

That February, they had a referendum on establishing a community forest, accompanied by an information campaign outlining not only the benefits, but the risks. The referendum was necessary because the town was paying $3 million for the TFL for RCFC. The referendum passed with a solid 78 per cent vote in favour. By that April, RCFC, such as it was back then, was up and running. They essentially had only a few months to pull together the partners, the funding and the final agreement. But they had the 120,000 hectare TFL by that August.

Fast forward to 2005, and RCFC now has more than a decade of solid management behind it. The structure the town had methodically set up back in the early ‘90s remains today. The community forest is working, and so are a lot more people in the town.

About half of their 100,000 cubic metre cut goes to their industry partners. The town’s major sawmiller, Downie Timber, receives 30 per cent, Joe Kozek Sawmills gets 10 per cent, and another 10 per cent goes to a cedar shake mill, Cascade Cedar. The companies have made the commitment to mill the RCFC wood—or an equivalent amount, if they trade the timber—locally. The timber is sold to them at cost, with the other 50 per cent being sold on the open market, through a log sort just outside of Revelstoke. The scaling contractor at the sort is Angelo Brunetti of Blue Spruce Contracting.

RCFC has developed a business plan, and it is working. And that is something that Clarke stresses to the want-to-be community forests. “Our main message is that whatever they are doing, it has to make sense as a business first. If you are successful as a business, then all those other nice community amenities can flow from that. If you don’t run it like a business, you’re never going to get to do those community things.”

The biggest surprise to many people—though not to anyone who has spent any time in the industry—is how complicated it can be, he says. “This mystifies them, the amount of regulation, planning and development required, and the money it takes to make it happen.

“This is not an easy industry to get involved with,” adds Clarke, who should know. He spent almost 20 years with forestry giant Canfor before moving to RCFC. “You can’t play in the fringes in this industry. You’ve got to be fully engaged in it—or not.”

Communities can view getting control of their forests as a salvation, thinking they can manage the forests better than a forest company. But while that may be true in some cases, that kind of thinking generally requires a reality check. It’s not an easy business to be in.

Some communities are trying co-operative approaches to run their forests, and while there have been a few successes, it can also make decision making difficult. They may be well intentioned and have good goals, but they also have the potential to be unworkable, says Clarke, because at some point, the rubber has to hit the road, or in this case, the skidder trail, and hard-nosed business decisions have to be made daily by professional management. “We have to make many decisions every day, and our Board depends on us to make good decisions,” explains Clarke, who is a Registered Professional Forester. “The thing that keeps us going is that we can be flexible and make those decisions quickly.”

There is lots of accountability, though, and responsibilities are clearly defined. Clarke reports quarterly to a board of directors, made up of city councilors and others appointed by the city. They publish an annual report, there are regular updates in the local newspaper, and they hold an annual public meeting. A wealth of information is available on their website (www.rcfc.bc.ca), including log prices at the sort, which can be kind of a touchy area. “You have to maintain control over some of the information because it is proprietary, but we try to be as open as we can without divulging people’s business.”

One of the mandates of RCFC is to use local contractors and suppliers as much as possible. Roadbuilding, harvesting, silviculture, forest management—it’s all done locally. Having RCFC’s business was the initiative to get more than a few new companies off the ground. “In some cases, we’re the anchor business for these companies, says Clarke. “We don’t really want to be 100 per cent of anybody’s business. But we’d like to be a piece of a whole lot of people’s businesses to spread it around.”

On the logging side, their half-a-dozen contractors have to deal with a lot of steep ground in this country. Revelstoke is home base to BC’s heli-skiing industry, and you can see why.  “It’s tricky getting the wood off in this country,” says Clarke. She’s a rugged piece of ground.”

Only about 20 per cent of their logging is done using conventional cut and skid operations. The majority is cable yarding, including some long line yarders that go out over a kilometre. In steep ground where they can’t get the ground deflection required for yarding, they will do heli-logging.

The contractors they work with tend to be smaller, family-owned firms who can be very resourceful and flexible about getting timber out. They often have to be, since there is a big variety of terrain posing no shortage of challenges. The contractors also have to be flexible with their operations. To keep busy through as much of the year as possible, they manage logging jobs between RCFC and logging done by the two local sawmills. There is a conscious effort by RCFC and the mills to try and maximize the logging work for local contractors. The logging contractors include Schiller Contracting (who work with a 90-foot Madill yarder), Speer’s Construction (which has a 50-foot Madill yarder, and do conventional Cat skidding and road construction), WJ Logging (who use a Wyssen Skyline), Murray Sanders (who uses a long line yarder), Heartwood Consulting (road construction and selective logging) and Kozek Sawmills (conventional logging).

With RCFC’s agreement stating that the balance of timber not going to local mills must be sold on the open market, this currently leaves the community forest out in the cold in terms of setting up its own milling facilities. They obviously have been able to live with that. But this past year has seen a timber glut in the region, between fire-salvaged wood and beetle-killed wood, and the government itself making timber available under its new BC Timber program. The end result: lower timber prices on the open market and at the log sort.

“It’s flooded the market with logs,” says Clarke. “It’s a bit of a struggle for the log market right now.”

It would be helpful, he adds, to have the option of setting up a mill operation to use some of their timber now allocated for the open market. It could be a fairly straightforward operation, such as cutting high-end Douglas fir into beams for log houses. But it would still deliver more revenue to RCFC. There are plans to initiate a discussion about this with the provincial government.

In the meantime, they will persevere despite low timber prices. “It’s a little but unnerving right now, but that’s the business,” says Clarke.                                                                              

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