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Taking the initiative on ROAD safety

BC contractors and forest companies are part of a group taking the initiative on how best to safely handle a large increase in logging truck traffic due to harvesting bug-killed wood.

By Jim Stirling

Mountain pine beetles can kill more than trees. Hauling substantially increased volumes of bug-killed wood on roads not designed to handle them becomes a major public safety issue. A diversified group in British Columbia’s Central Interior is co-operating to seek workable solutions to the complex problem. They are in the midst of Canada’s worst-ever beetle epidemic. The infestation is spread across an area 1,100 kilometres long and 450 kilometres wide.

A transportation fallout from the beetle epidemic in the BC Interior is a staggering 100,000 additional truckloads of logs travelling to regional sawmills each year.

The epidemic is on target to infest up to 200 million cubic metres of lodgepole pine timber by the end of 2003. If the epidemic were to vanish tomorrow—which isn’t going to happen—the aftermath would still require years of salvage harvesting and forest rehabilitation.

The BC Ministry of Forests, licensees and their log harvesting contractors are employing a range of tactics to combat the state of emergency. BC’s chief forester has permitted an uplift in the annual allowable cut (AAC) in the worst affected forest districts to try and contain and slow down the beetle’s inexorable march. A transportation fallout of the epidemic is an estimated 100,000 additional truckloads of logs travelling to regional sawmills each year.

Some roads at certain times will sustain up to a 50 per cent increase in traffic, roads shared with the travelling public including, on occasion, school buses. Concerns about the impacts of increased truck traffic on the region’s highway and logging road networks prompted the Central Interior Logging Association (CILA) to contact interested parties in October, 2002. It triggered a gradual upswell of support, says Roy Nagel, the association’s general manager. “We are dealing with lives here.”

The result has been top level involvement, spearheaded by the ministries of forests and transportation and CILA and endorsed through active participation from the forest industry, the WCB, the Insurance Corporation of BC and the RCMP. “It’s been really heartening,” says Nagel.

Well-attended public meetings in Burns Lake, Vanderhoof and Quesnel have aired concerns surrounding the issue and pulled recommendations and action plans for a steering committee to consider for implementation. Immediate concerns include the mix of traffic and disparity in speed levels, road maintenance, logging truck conditions, signage and radio use.

Sawmills in the BC Interior are handling the extra wood harvested as a result of the bug infestation. The chief forester has approved an uplift of 2.9 million cubic metres of AAC in the Prince George area alone.

Nagel notes the increased harvest combined with quarterly “stumpage bingo” implications contribute to an influx of truckers from around the province. He says pre-trips could be an option for out-of-towners unfamiliar with local conditions. “Looking at a map doesn’t tell the whole story.” The macro view of the beetle-induced AAC uplifts include 1.5 million cubic metres in the Burns Lake Forest District, about 900,000 cubic metres in Quesnel and 2.9 million in the Prince George area, says Bob Clark, BC’s Ministry of Forests district manager in Vanderhoof.

He is also the bark beetle co-ordinator appointed by the government to oversee the province’s beetle strategy. But the stark figures don’t necessarily indicate what volumes are moving from which areas at any given time. In true northern spirit, the situation isn’t that simple. Beetle harvesting plans are orchestrated on a broader tableau. The continuing dispute on softwood lumber production with the US is an influencing factor.

The Ministry of Forests has had staffing levels cut by 35 per cent as a result of the provincial government’s core review of services. It’s a similar story with other government ministries and agencies. There are fewer bodies out there to do the work. Specific complications also exist in the infestation area. The Burns Lake district has difficult infrastructure problems because of east-west running lakes separating harvest areas from mills, says Clark.

These are problems that can’t be solved overnight given the current lumber market, he says. Another issue impacting log flows, Clark says, is the “evolving jurisprudence” surrounding First Nations. Recent court decisions have changed interpretations of consultation and participation with First Nations on timber harvesting plans and issues. But Clark says significant progress is being made in moving bug wood. “Is it totally satisfactory to all parties? No. Do I think it’s progress in terms of legal and other constraints? Yes.” Clark says the areas where harvesting uplifts are sanctioned represent routes where traffic volumes are likely to increase most. “We’re in the process of identifying the specific roads with the biggest problems,” he adds.

The Ministry of Transportation contracts out road maintenance duties in term contracts. Their maintenance contractors are aware of concerns with moving large log volumes and maintenance has been good, says Tom Kerns, the ministry’s regional manager of planning and partnerships. If additional maintenance is necessary beyond that stipulated in the maintenance contracts, funds would be sought within the transportation ministry’s budget or in some cases a one-time assessment through the Ministry of Forests or licensees, he says.

The transport ministry cut three hours of daily sailings of the Omineca Princess across Francois Lake, south of Burns Lake, as a cost cutting measure. It resulted in howls of protest from loggers, ranchers and others who depend on the service. The forest industry claimed the province was losing $60,000 a week in stumpage revenues because of the fewer truckloads delivered. Trimming the hours of service saved the Ministry of Transportation $5,000/week. An extra hour of ferry service was later restored.

A ministry official in Victoria points out, however, additional capacity is available to move logs evenings and on weekends. Slocan Forest Products’ Plateau operation near Vanderhoof implemented steps to improve safety on its network of logging roads and the public highways in February, 2002. It uses a numbering system for easier identification of contractors’ logging trucks and company pick-ups. The reflective numbers are the size of a licence plate and mounted where oncoming headlights shine, says Steve Price, forestry superintendent for Plateau. The numbers cost $8 to $12 and are easy to install.

Concerns with speed and proper calling procedures plus the first fatality in 30 years of operation made them work harder and more diligently, Price says. Plateau is a large volume sawmill running three shifts a day of close to 100 per cent bug wood. There can be 200 logging trucks plus pick-ups out in the bush. He notes half of the earlier complaints concerned pick-up truck drivers. Price says the tracking procedure if someone has a complaint about driving behaviour is to note the number and take concerns to its owner.

If that fails, the complaint goes to the employer and if that doesn’t work satisfactorily, it goes on to the mill where the buck stops, he adds. “The initial response (to the numbering system) was very positive from contractors, though individuals showed some skepticism. There’s been very good buy-in from regular truckers,” he adds. “Overall, speed is down, near misses have been reduced and complaints have dropped. It’s very positive. The RCMP in Vanderhoof is interested in the program spreading.” Price notes any reduction in near misses means less serious accidents and fatalities. “It’s a simple solution and it works,” he adds.


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