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Pioneer Spirit

The South Yukon Forest Corporation is taking sawmilling in Canada's north to another level, opening a new $7.5-million mill at Watson Lake. The mill will be a strong move towards the government's goal of having 60 per cent of Yukon wood processed locally.

By Jim Stirling
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.

The Yukon has always stirred the pioneering spirit. In no small way, the South Yukon Forest Corporation (SYFC) will be charting new ground for the territory's fledgling timber harvesting and processing industries as its new sawmill geared into production this past fall. The operation is much larger than others launched in the Yukon. It will require 100,000 cubic metres of timber annually to operate the mill on the single-shift, year-round basis that is anticipated by the corporation's management team. The mill is located two km west of Watson Lake and produces rough green pine products cut to customer specifications for re-manufacture.

South Yukon Mill

The South Yukon mill, built this past summer, uses small diameter pine harvested in southeast and central Yukon. It produces rough green lumber cut to customer specifications for re-manufacture.

There's an inherent risk with every new venture. But SYFC is investing about $7.5 million without a secured fibre source and in a working environment generally lacking in forest industry infrastructure and policy. (That capital investment figure includes yard equipment and Cat diesel generators for power).

"In some respects, it's a case of putting the cart before the horse," concedes Brian Kerr, SYFC's general manager. "But we believe if we do things right and put in a first-class facility, we'll establish a good business and position in the community and the government will support us."

Yukon sawmilling has traditionally been characterized by numerous small mills seasonally producing anything from a few hundred to 20,000 board feet of rough lumber a day. It's rather like the BC Central Interior was in the 1950s.

The Yukon today has a population of about 32,000 people, meaning a very limited local market for wood products. Yukoners have traditionally not been happy to see log volumes exported to feed mills in BC. The SYFC will move toward the government's goal of having 60 per cent of Yukon wood processed locally. The new mill will also operate year-round in an enclosed and heated building and will employ 24 people per shift. That includes management, which is primarily made up of Yukoners with a hands-on involvement in the operation. The mill will prove significant to the Watson Lake economy, which relies on summer tourism, and can create meaningful employment and wages, says Kerr.

The Yukon lacks a network of logging roads, meaning timber access is poor and requires considerable development. So does forest policy.

"There's a different kind of problem in that we're doing some things that haven't been done here. There's little in the way of policy. There has to be an industrial model to build policies around," explains Kerr; policies that will accommodate larger-scale timber harvesting in concert with environmental considerations, First Nations' concerns and other forest land uses like trapping and eco-tourism. And importantly, SYFC wants to obtain a forest licence and quota from the government. "We're just starting down that road," says Kerr.

Two winters ago, SYFC operated small sawmills to introduce the Yukon fibre resource to potential markets. This included making products for re-manufacture in Japan. The Japanese really liked their products, reports Kerr. Another market they opened up was Abeda Wood Products of Kelowna, BC, which will take SYFC's product from the new mill to manufacture pine panelling.

The company's fibre will come from the Watson Lake Forest District in the southeast and central Yukon. "It's predominantly small-diameter pine averaging from 8" butts to 12" but it has very little taper," notes Kerr. Timber will be harvested by contractors using conventional ground-based mechanical harvesting systems in generally rolling terrain.

Logs trucked to the mill yard pass through a log sorting system prior to entering the single-line sawmill. Logs are scanned for diameter and delivered to the appropriate bin. Each bin has an order file attached to it. The plan is to adjust the setworks on primary breakdown and downstream machine centres to run with one diameter class of logs at a time. "We'd like to run for a couple of days between settings," adds Kerr. "With our throughput, we want to do all the sorting in the log stage," which makes for easier material handling. The system also allows the mill to achieve better recovery from each log without the costs of individual stem scanning, he adds.

The diameter-class logs being run in the mill begin their journey on a log infeed deck for passage through an 18" Cambio debarker. The barker outfeed delivers logs to the primary breakdown unit, a single-length infeed Swecan canter. " It's a totally rebuilt machine with two chipping heads for sawn faces and a cant turner." Downstream is an 8" single-arbor Ari edger.

Lumber and slabs drop to a lumber-handling deck for unscrambling and tracking to the primary sort. Recoverable slabs are re-routed back to the board edger and its chipping head.

Kerr says the mill's multi-saw trimming system is old technology but works well. The appropriate saws are activated for each board at the trimmer operator's console. Slabs that have made it through the system are cut into 2' lengths and directed to the waste conveyor. Waste is burned. "In the next phase, we want to generate power and heat from wood wastes. But this is as far a level of comfort as we can go initially with no timber security."

Lumber passes to a grading area after trimming, where it is graded according to customer specifications. PLCs track the product into one of 10 trays with falldown directed to a green chain for manual pulling and stacking. A Newnes stacking and banding system handles the graded product. SYFC's products will be trucked from the plant.

Transportation is another issue but Kerr believes it will be successfully tackled. " As an example, there's one trucking company alone that has 30 trucks a week passing through Watson Lake on deadhead return hauls," he says.

"There are lots of obstacles yet," acknowledges Kerr. "But we're trying to do things right and we believe it's going to work."

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