July Aug 2003
Logger Andrew Clark of New Brunswick finds he doesn’t need the absolute latest and greatest in equipment to do high-value forest management.
By George Fullerton
Logger Andrew Clark promotes his contracting business as providing long-term, high-quality forest products development for private woodlot owners in northwest New Brunswick. Rather than working to produce high volumes with a fleet of high-tech equipment, Clark’s operation focuses on getting the most value out of the trees he harvests, and leaving well-spaced trees on the customer’s woodlot that will be ready for another harvest in 10 to 15 years.
In order to get the absolute best value out of every tree, Clark markets a wide variety of forest products to more than 10 mills in the northwest region of New Brunswick and neighbouring Maine. Clark claims that his career in contracting started when—at 13 years of age—he and the family’s workhorse were hired out to a neighbour in his native community of Simonds, near the town of Hartland on the upper St John River. “The horse was hired and I came with the horse,” he says. “It was freely discussed that the horse was far more knowledgeable about woods work than I was at the time.”
That neighbour took the time to show and discuss with his young co-worker the story that the harvested trees can tell through their annual growth rings. This initial exposure to silviculture, forest growth and dynamics sparked a lifelong passion for forestry. His initial interest in forestry led to studies at the Maritime Forest Ranger School in Fredericton, New Brunswick. After graduating with a forest technician diploma in 1973, Clark purchased a C-4 Tree Farmer skidder. He started contracting in his native Carleton County for the Flemming and Gibson sawmill.
Later he moved to independent contracting and supplying mills in New Brunswick and Maine. In 1980, after nearly a decade of conventional high volume-driven contracting and chasing stumpage, Clark decided to offer woodlot owners an alternative harvesting service. It would focus on leaving good quality, high-value growing stock—rather than simply maximizing short-term return to the woodlot owner by harvesting and shipping every single merchantable stick of wood. Clark started out offering the alternative service using his conventional line skidder.
Over a period of a few years, he realized that using a skidder to do selection and other sensitive harvesting was a hard sell proposition with most woodlot owners. Skidders had established a reputation for massive clear cuts, disturbed waterways and destruction of woodlands. Clark could show that the line skidder could do sensitive work successfully, but the general perception with the majority of woodlot owners was that a skidder was still a skidder: a machine more readily related to clear cuts and devastated woodlots.
In 1988, after long consideration, Clark decided he had to make an equipment change to overcome the skidder perception. He purchased a F-4 Dion tracked short wood forwarder in Quebec, brought it into Carleton County and set off to learn how to use it and to adapt his work practices to shortwood harvesting. He admits that there was a very sharp learning curve with the move to a new machine and cutting and handling shortwood logs, but the unit drew a lot of interest and customers.
The F-4 made a very different picture in the woods, with cleated rubber tracks that provided minimal ground disturbance and offered the perception of a narrow, light and agile machine. Clark says the Dion forwarder has caught the interest and the business of woodlot owners who are looking for a more sensitive harvest on their land. The Dion also has a very low centre of gravity and lots of climbing power. Clark points out that he has not seen any other shortwood forwarder that can work on the steep slopes that the F-4 can. He also admits that it has some shortcomings, including the high cost of maintaining the tracks. He points out that the machine was designed as a softwood shortwood forwarder, and was not built to handle big heavy hardwood logs.
As a result, after 15 years of service, there is ample evidence of rebuilds and repairs, especially on the loader mast. Once Clark was convinced that shortwood was the optimal system for operating sensitively on woodlots, he decided that it would be appropriate to have another forwarder that offered a little quicker cycle time. Rather than making the investment in a small and expensive modern forwarder, he sized up his old C-4 Tree Farmer skidder and mounted a Patu log loader on the rear frame and hitched on a Patu tandem log trailer.
The conversion made an efficient low cost forwarder that is well suited for sites that are not too steep and where soil conditions are such that rutting is not a concern. After nearly 30 years of service, Clark points out that the C-4 is only on its second engine. “I have to give credit to synthetic oil and attention to general maintenance. I run all the engines on synthetic oil and I think it pays.” Clark says that the mixed forest type on Carleton County’s private woodlots and the abundance of mills within 160 kilometres are key to allowing him to run a business on a relative low volume, compared to most conventional contractors. Pulp mills St Anne Nackawic (hardwood) and Fraser Nexfor (softwood) at Edmundston purchase the low-end fibre, while the Fraser Nexfor sawmill at Juniper, Crabbe Lumber in Bristol and JD Irving mill at St Leonard get the bulk of the softwood saw logs.
Some stud wood finds a market at Devon Lumber in Fredericton. Clark says the key to surviving on small volumes and low volume (chainsaw) production methods is in squeezing more dollars out of the harvested trees. When it comes to merchandizing hardwoods, he says he slows things down and takes his time. “When you consider marketing hardwoods, I could put it all into Nackawic at $40 per ton and they would gladly take the whole tree and grind it up to make pulp. On the other hand, I can take a little time and look over the stem and consider if it might make a log or two that will fit the specs for about a hundred individual veneer and hardwood saw logs at half a dozen mills within a hundred miles,” he says.
Clark pointed out that the potential value increase—for 10 to 15 minutes worth of inspecting and measuring and bucking and re-bucking—is considerable when you consider $1,700/thousand board feet ($800 per cord) for special prime veneer logs at Columbia Forest Products, just across the border at Presque ‘Isle, Maine. “That is close to 10 times what the same wood would get at the pulp mill.” Chainsaw operators do not buck potential veneer and high quality hardwood saw logs. They are left as long lengths or bucked only at the first limb or other obvious defect, and then forwarded to roadside, where Clark takes some “quality time” to thoughtfully buck the greatest dollar value out of the stems.
Clark makes a special deal with woodlot owners on the veneer logs, one that is good for the woodlot owner and good for him. “The deal usually is that I split any veneer 50/50 with the owner. I cut a very nice yellow birch that netted the owner $100 and myself $100. But if I didn’t make the effort to sort and carefully buck that log out of the tree, it could have ended up in the pulp pile and netted the owner about $20 in stumpage.” If a stem won’t make the high tolerance specs that Columbia requires, Clark has markets with a variety of veneer specs at Hardwood Products at Napadogan in New Brunswick, and the Calley and Currier Veneer Mill in Sherman, Maine.
Once a log falls out of the veneer specs, he simply sizes it up for hardwood sawmills like Group Savoie at St Quentin and Sadler in Wapske. And there are also niche markets. Ash may be a minor component in the species mix in Carleton County woodlots, but a mill owned by tool handle maker Garant, in Woodstock, New Brunswick, offers a ready market and pays a good premium over pulp and many saw log markets.
Clark applies his hardwood production and merchandizing philosophy to cedar as well, serving a number of small regional mills like Lindsay Lumber in Millville. Regional cedar mills handle a wide variety of specs that they in turn break down into dozens of milled products for domestic and US markets. Clark makes an effort to keep up to date on mill specs through the regional woodlot owner group, the Carleton-Victoria Forest Products Marketing Board. The board keeps up-to-date information on all regional markets and provides information for all wood producers in the region. “I try to supply a little wood to all the mills in the region. It is important that I support them and supply wood so they stay in business and maintain strong and competitive markets.”
Clark says New Brunswick’s mixed forest and diversified manufacturing capacity maintains good marketing opportunities, despite the current tough times in the global forest industry. He says that the provincial government’s forestry policy should be following a similar philosophy, working with the unique attributes of the forest resource in New Brunswick. This makes more sense than promoting a path that focuses on forest industries producing mainly softwood lumber commodities that have to compete with lumber produced in other places that have the benefit of a less harsh climate and a better economic environment.
Clark points to northern hardwoods, specifically hard maple, ash, butternut and yellow birch, that have unique characteristics that cannot be replicated. “In the commodity forest products market, New Brunswick is a very small player in a very big game when you compare us to BC, Ontario or Quebec. The big forestry provinces can increase production by just a few percentage points and completely bury our production. “I have to question the wisdom of our government putting forest production emphasis on forest products to compete in those commodity markets. We are blessed with a very diverse forest that produces very unique woods with very unique qualities.
They have proven market acceptance and cannot be replicated from other forest regions or from manufacturing processes. “Our government would be more astute if they took the opportunity to put more emphasis on non-commodity forest products and marketed our uniqueness to the world and avoided the short peaks, and long valleys, of the commodity markets.” Pointing out that hardwoods generate 10 times the value of softwood, Clark criticizes the government’s Crown lands policy that continues to allow mixed wood stands to be converted to softwood.
Clark extends his concerns to the government’s current policy on education and training for forestry workers. He points out that the policy is leading to less and less forestry training in secondary school and reduced emphasis on promoting the forest industry for secondary and vocational training after high school. The lack of training opportunities for the workforce means that contractors are finding it increasingly difficult to get knowledgeable workers. That applies whether they are required as chainsaw operators for selection harvesting, harvester operators or for technicians working on specialized milling or forestry equipment.
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