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July August 2004

TIMBER SALVAGE

Cleaning up the blowdown

A massive five-year clean-up of blowdown timber in northwestern Ontario is coming to an end, marking a successful effort by the forest management company, logging contractors and the Ministry of Natural Resources.

By Norm Philippsen

More than 30,000 hectares in the Lakehead Forest region were ravaged by a freak windstorm. An estimated 1.5 million cubic metres of timber had been pulled from the affected area as of this July.

You won’t find the word “blowdown” in Webster’s Dictionary, but if it’s ever added to the English language, it would be more than appropriate to see a picture of Terry Byers accompanying the definition. Byers, a logging contractor in northwestern Ontario since 1976, and spokesperson for the clean-up of one of the largest blowdowns in northwestern Ontario’s history, is nearing the end of a challenging and brutal five-year operation. “Like anything else it was a big learning curve, actually it was a killer,” Byers says. “When the blowdown clean-up is over I won’t be disappointed—it’s been tough.”

The blowdown occurred in July 1999, and stretched from the US border in the south to Quetico in the north, towards Thunder Bay in the east and over towards the Manitoba border in the west. More than 30,000 hectares (100 square miles) in the Lakehead Forest region were ravaged by the freak July windstorm, with a second storm uprooting previously weakened timber two weeks after the initial damage. Byers first got word of the destruction while vacationing at Northern Lights Resort, which was situated on the outer edge of the storm. “We have a trailer at the resort, and I talked to two people who had come off the lake and they said the shoreline was a mess in places as far as they could see,” he says. “Then we had a heck of a time getting home because of all the trees blown across the roads on our way back to Thunder Bay.”

After helicopter mapping and surveying, the blowdown-affected area was divided into blocks. Logging contractors then selected blocks, so they weren’t tripping over each other, and initially focused on what used to be conifer stands. Jackpine stands got hit significantly hard by the blowdown.

As president of Superior North Loggers Inc, which owns 51 per cent of Greenmantle Forest Inc, the forestry management company for the Lakehead Forest region, Byers had an early look at the carnage by helicopter. The following week an aerial survey was conducted to determine how bad the damage was. Greenmantle is responsible for implementing environmental guidelines, stewardship and many of the responsibilities that the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) formerly carried out. Greenmantle was formed in 1997. “They were instrumental in expediting the clean-up process and deciding how to initiate the clean-up,” Byers says. “It was a huge organizational feat to decide who does what—and when.” Just getting to the timber proved problematic. After helicopter mapping and surveying, the area was divided into blocks. Contractors then chose the blocks so they weren’t tripping on each other, initially keying on what used to be conifer stands.

According to Byers, pretty well every one of the 36 licensees and their 150 employees and contractors that make up Greenmantle were involved at one point or another in the project, especially in the first two years of the clean-up. “Jackpine stands really got hit so we went after them first,” Byers says. “In 1999 and 2000 we really went at it. We still had log content in 2001, and after that we chipped the rest.” Harvesting since September 1999, Byers estimates they have pulled 1.5 million metres of timber out of the blowdown when the project wrapped up this July.

Thirty per cent of the timber went to sawlogs and 70 per cent to chips, he estimates. Replanting also started right away. “Wood we cut in 2000 was planted by 2001—a one year lag, that’s all,” Byers says. “On the edge of Arrow Lake, which we cut and planted in 1999, you can see trees everywhere today.” Part of the strategy was also to do a very good clean-up job in order to facilitate easier cutting in the future. Once a strategy was in place to tackle the blowdown, the challenges of completing the work began. “One of the problems we faced is there’s no place in the bush where you can go and say ‘I’ll have a good walk,’ to see how you’d handle a blowdown of this proportion or magnitude,” Byers says. Roads—or lack thereof—also posed a problem.

In normal terrain, it’s much easier to plan ahead. You can anticipate creek crossings or water hazards; but with the blowdown you just come on to them. “That was hard, we could only deal with the water when we got to it,” Byers says. “It was hard to plan ahead with creeks and rivers. Most stands you can see ahead, but with blowdowns you’re blocked.” Byers adds that Greenmantle was excellent when they’d come up to one of those water hazards. “They’d immediately do on-site inspections and get all the paperwork put through as fast as they could to get a crossing,” he says. “Lots of temporary crossings were built—bridges to get in and out—and if we had to, we’d use culverts. Most of the roads are still in place for silviculture purposes, because we do our own planting.” Sensitive shoreline operations were another big MNR concern. “We encountered numerous lakes,” Byers commented. “What they (MNR) allowed us to do because their staff was seasoned—they had experience—was they allowed us, in most cases, to cut to the water’s edge. We had to be very careful, we had to make sure there was no ruttage, kind of feel as you go. And obviously there was some steep terrain, because of its proximity to water, that we couldn’t get to.”

Fire season also proved problematic for the clean-up. During the entire summer months, the blowdown area was classified “High Hazard Alert,” which created additional headaches and work. Everyone received fire training, there were special water requirements and frequently they were only allowed to chip. The extra attention to fire safety paid off though, as only two small fires occurred in this tinderbox environment. While there were numerous production challenges, the clean-up operation wasn’t all doom and gloom. “As far as production goes, you probably do about half of what a normal buncher would do in a day,” Byers says. “But what the mills did is they stepped up to the plate and turned their reduced stumpage rates back to us.

The government gave them a 75 per cent stumpage reduction and they turned that back to us so we could apply that to our cutting costs.” The project also helped establish markets that contractors didn’t have before with Bowater and Kimberly Clark, and it gave guys extra work, especially some of the smaller contractors, Byers adds. On the equipment front, Byers says that the conventional feller bunchers worked pretty well for the clean-up. “I can’t say anybody went out and bought special equipment. Most of them converted or adapted equipment they were already using. Some did buy new heads with intermittent saws, but because of the mess, not too many people went to cut-to-length mode—we stayed with special feller bunchers, grapple skidders and slashers.

And cut and skid was used very sparingly.” Byers estimates that 75 per cent of the 30,000 hectares will be cleaned up by July 2004. Today only half a dozen guys are still working in the blowdown and the wood is “just harvestable.” It’s only good for chips. Overall, Byers summarizes, the project has been successful. “All in all, it was a job well-done.”

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