Labrador logger Mike Hickey faces some tough operating challenges- including having to barge most of his timber to Newfoundland.
By Bert Pomeroy
Dwayne Elliott looks at the profile of a giant black spruce forest in the distance. "That's what it's all about," says the forestry technician, pointing to a mechanical harvester at work. Elliott works for Hickey Construction and in the winter months he trudges through five feet of snow as he goes about his daily routine. Hickey Construction, of Happy Valley Goose Bay, has been operating in Labrador for about 20 years and continues to succeed where others have failed: running a viable woods operation, while withstanding pressures most in the industry could only imagine. "Given all of the challenges we face- like the climate, transportation restrictions and aboriginal concerns-making a profit is the most challenging," says company president Mike Hickey.
The company, owned by Hickey and his brother Tony, runs its harvesting operation 10 months of the year-from June to April-and temperatures can be well below 30 C during the long, dark winter months. "We operate 24hours a day, with two shifts," notes Rory Burton, the camp supervisor, who's been with the company for 12 years.
The more than two dozen Hickey workers live in Happy Valley Goose Bay, a community of nearly 9,000. Every day they travel as far as 100 kilometres over icy roads to report to work. "Despite the snow, slippery conditions and cold weather, we haven't had much downtime," says Burton. As the company name states, Hickey has its roots in the construction business, a big advantage when the company decided to move into the forest industry. In addition to their harvesting operations, they also build about 10 kilometres of road a year, says Hickey, noting that the company spends roughly $50,000 a year building and maintaining several forest access roads.
The provincial government helps to maintain the main access route, Grand Lake Road, built in the late 1960s by the ill-fated Labrador Linerboard Ltd operation, which also has a colorful history. In 1966, Newfoundland and Labrador premier Joey Smallwood proposed to develop a linerboard mill in the Happy Valley Goose Bay area, harvesting some 800,000 cords a year. A mill would open in 1973, but not in Labrador. The government decided to build it at Stephenville, on Newfoundland's west coast, after the United States Air Force withdrew from Harmon Field at Stephenville-a major economic blow to the one industry town. But the cost of building the mill, which began construction in 1971, was three times the original estimate.
It became a political scandal involving arrests on fraud charges. The linerboard operation failed, as have others before it and many since. "Goose Bay was going to be the largest logging community in eastern Canada," Hickey says. "Perhaps it still will, or maybe we have to be geared to the fact that the best we can ever hope for is a moderate harvesting operation, with secondary products going to the local market." The Stephenville mill, which closed in 1977 after several failed attempts by the government to find a buyer, was acquired by AbitibiPrice (now Abitibi Consolidated) and subsequently converted to a newsprint operation. Ironically, Hickey now sells 40 per cent of its Annual Allowable Cut (AAC) of 50,000 cubic metres to the Stephenville mill.
The linerboard operation, in its best year, harvested some 250,000 cubic metres, notes Hickey. There is still tremendous potential in the woods, he believes. "There's a great opportunity here to develop the woods industry," says Hickey, who is a member and past president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Lumber Producers Association. "Here in this area, on the south side of the Churchill River, I'd say there's about 90 to 100 million cubic metres of standing timber." If that forest resource is managed right, it could be a sustainable industry. The total AAC in Forest Unit 19, where Hickey has his quota, is currently 400,000 cubic metres, although this number and the rationale behind it has been disputed by several concerned groups in Labrador. While the markets exist for timber, there are still problems with transportation, he adds.
On this day, Hickey looks at a barge being loaded with 2,000 cords of wood for a sawmill operation in Clarenville, on Newfoundland's east coast. It's one of several shipments to Bloomfield Lumber, which also purchases 40 per cent of Hickey's AAC. The other 20 per cent, or 10,000 cubic metres, is sold to area sawmills producing lumber for the local market. September, 1997, was a turning point for the Hickey operation. Faced with the dilemma of trying to maintain a stable workforce, the company decided to purchase two mechanical harvesters. Productivity improved and the company found its niche. "The harvesters are actually excavator conversion packages, which is basically a modified excavator. We jacked them up another 14 inches to give us some clearance for the five feet of snow we get in the winter," says Hickey. "We've put safety guards around the cabs and installed fire suppression systems."
The mechanical harvesters are both John Deere 690E units with Fabtek 2000 heads. "They are high and wide packages, enabling machines to work in our very hilly terrain," Hickey says. "They are both operating on up to 30 degree slopes." The machines work in deep snow and extremely cold conditions, from November to March. Two shifts operate 12 hours each, five days a week. "We chose the John Deere machine because of good financing, good service and a very good local dealer. It was the right machine for the job." Each machine cuts 25,000 cubic metres of wood in a 10month period. Production depends on wood size and species: in small black spruce, they do six cubic metres per hour and in large white spruce and fir, 10 cubic metres per hour.
Back at the camp, Rory Burton recalls the days when a crew of 30 manual cutters cut all the wood. "It's a big difference now. The amount of wood we're producing is unbelievable compared to what we were doing. And we don't have near the effort to get it." Hickey is proud of their equipment set up and its performance. "What we have is as good as anything, anywhere, for cut to length processing." On site servicing is provided every 250 hours on each machine. Regular oil analysis is done through the dealer and everything is rebuilt during the spring shutdown period. On the forwarding side, Hickey has a Fabtek 546B six wheel drive for longer hauls of 400 to 700 metres and a Valmet 544B four wheel drive for short hauls of up to 400 metres. For roadbuilding, they have a John Deere 690 excavator, which they also change over to use for bundling and loading barges.
A Cat 140G road grader, with snow gear, is used for maintaining access roads, grading and snow clearing. Also on the roadbuilding crew is a Cat D6D bulldozer with winch and hydraulic tilt blade and a Mack dump truck, which are also used to load barges and move wood, a Deere 624H front end loader with snow gear, and a Mack four wheel drive truck, with snow gear and sand box. "We get help from the provincial government on the main access road, paying to get it graded a couple of times a year, but we basically take things in our own hands," Hickey says. "If you want to move the wood, then you have to do your work ." Once the wood is cut, it's moved to access roads by the forwarders, where it's loaded aboard trucks and brought to Happy ValleyGoose Bay.
There it is stockpiled to await the next barge. The local sawmill operations truck their own wood. It's the middle of November and the 2,000 cords destined for Bloomfield Lumber will be the last shipment of the year. Soon, the shipping season will close, and Hickey's will be forced to stockpile until next June. "Transportation has always been the biggest problem. Not only do we have to compete with other operations, we are forced to spend much more on transportation. There's a maximum cost of wood into the mill, and we would collect more of that maximum if we were a lot closer to the mill or could eliminate the cost of barging," Hickey says.
In addition to the logistics of transporting wood, Hickey faces some other big challenges. Labrador, with an area larger than all the Maritime provinces and the island of Newfoundland combined, is home to three aboriginal groups, including the Innu. The rich timber is in the middle of land claims negotiations with the Innu Nation. (The area is also being claimed by the Labrador Métis Nation, which has yet to be officially recognized by the provincial government.) Hickey knows any major forestry development in the region will undoubtedly have to have the blessing of the Innu. "We have a lot of restrictions against us, compared to outfits on the island," he says. "On the island they're talking about putting a 15foot buffer around lakes. The Innu just put a five kilometre buffer around Grand Lake."
The restriction, Hickey says, was mildly opposed by the province. "The government challenges a bit, but they don't want to rock the boat while land claims negotiations are ongoing. It's just something we'll have to live with." While Hickey maintains his company generally has a good rapport with the Innu, he admits an armed roadblock in September could have resulted in tragedy. A small group of Innu was protesting forestry operations in the region. Shots were fired, and a former Innu Nation president was charged.
Hickey's workers had to be flown out of the woods. "I don't know what would have happened if the woods trucks had come out to the roadblock," he says. "That whole situation was brought on by a couple of hotheads." Hickey has been holding meetings with the Innu Nation and the provincial government for the past five years, as part of the management plan process. "We've done our part, so now it's up to the Innu Nation and the government. Hopefully, they will take some of our concerns and come up with a good plan." A short wood supply on the island of Newfoundland is opening up new markets for Hickey.
The company hopes to soon get the green light to double its AAC, as customers are destined to come knocking. "In the short term, they're going to be needing wood on the island and here we have a lot of mature wood-75 per cent of it is 150 years old. It should be harvested before it burns." There were 83 recorded forest fires in Labrador in one two-week period in 2000. "In the Grand Lake area, we lost about 600,000 cubic metres in a 24hour period in 1985." Hickey says he conducts his operation in an environmentally friendly way, often going beyond what is required.
The company now has a solid workforce and modern equipment and is anxious to take on new opportunities and challenges. That said, patience will be required to succeed where others have failed. "There's been an attempt at forestry here at least every five or six years for the past 100 years," Hickey says. "We've been here since 1955. It's home and we're not going anywhere."
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