Major league player
BC’s McLeod Lake Indian Band has set up its own timber harvesting arm, Duz Cho Logging, which started out modestly and has since grown to be a major league player.
By Jim Stirling
For years, First Nations groups across Canada have sought ways to blend aboriginal aspirations with economic development. Many still are. Gradually and without fanfare, the McLeod Lake Indian Band has used the medium of timber harvesting to help realize its goals. And along the way, it’s become very good at it. The Band—under its chief and council—created Duz Cho Logging to direct and function as its log harvesting arm. Having a 100 per cent First Nations-owned proprietorship was a transcendent idea in the British Columbia of the mid-1980s. The enterprise began modestly enough, with four pieces of equipment and a contract to log about 60,000 cubic metres for Finlay Forest Industries of Mackenzie in north central BC.
But between last summer and the beginning of breakup 2004, Duz Cho harvested around 650,000 cubic metres. It had about 44 pieces of machinery in its equipment fleet. Annual volumes harvested are predicted to climb toward the 850,000 cubic metre mark in the near term. Those figures make Duz Cho a major league player by any definition. A significant project in the company’s ascent occurred in 1996. Duz Cho was awarded the contract to clear a 340-kilometre long right-of-way for a hydroelectric line connecting the remote Kemess mine to the power grid near Mackenzie.
Duz Cho completed the $26.5 million project within a year, despite formidable terrain requiring construction of more than 200 bridges. About 300,000 cubic metres of timber were harvested during the job. Al Humphreys characterizes Duz Cho’s growth and learning curve as a fairly steady climb, with a few little bumps along the way. And most of those blips were attributable to what was going on in the forest industry rather than within Duz Cho, points out Humphreys, the company’s general manager for most of the last dozen years. A major licensee being down two months is an example of one such blip. Duz Cho is a logging contractor to Abitibi-Consolidated and Slocan Forest Products in Mackenzie. Humphreys estimates Duz Cho is now responsible for about half of Abitibi’s cut in the Mackenzie area.
It harvests conventionally and the cut-to-length system. Duz Cho also averages about 50 kilometres of spur and truck trail road construction a year for Abitibi. And up to double that for Slocan on roads used by five log contracting companies. “Both companies have treated the Band very well,” says Humphreys. Duz Cho has moved across the Rocky Mountains to Chetwynd in response to a recent opportunity. When Tembec took over the Louisiana-Pacific pulp mill near Chetwynd, it sought bid proposals from Indian bands and contractors to harvest aspen and deliver it in eight-foot lengths. Duz Cho is now the second largest harvesting contractor working for the Tembec operation. Chetwynd is also Duz Cho’s headquarters for a sister company initiative: constructing oil and gas roads and leases as a natural offshoot of the company’s logging business. Duz Cho’s other main harvesting activity takes place around McLeod Lake on the Band’s Treaty 8 lands.
McLeod Lake is about 46 kilometres south of Mackenzie. The area has some magnificent trees, including individual spruce that can yield 1.3 cubic metres, says Humphreys. That’s befitting Duz Cho, which means “big tree” in the TseKehne language. Humphreys has assigned four, full-time, on the ground supervisors, one for each of Duz Cho’s main operating areas. “It’s something the licensees appreciate and it’s easy to justify the costs,” he adds. About 60 per cent of Duz Cho’s employees are of First Nations origin, explains Humphreys, with about half that number members of the McLeod Lake Indian Band. “It’s a good mix and we’ve got some great people.” When looking for qualified people—which doesn’t happen often with Duz Cho’s minimal turnover rate—Humphreys looks first for interest within the McLeod Lake Band membership.
He then turns to other First Nations, to the local labour pool and then wherever he can find the experience sought. Monies generated by Duz Cho have been used by the chief and council to provide a range of services and for dividends to Band members. Logging and Sawmill Journal visited Duz Cho’s Mackenzie area operations at the rump of the winter logging season. A time of night shift loading and hauling on roads where conditions can change hourly. A time when it becomes clear the weather gods are not loggers. But Humphreys was, as usual, juggling multiple sides, assigning the right equipment to the right application to ensure licensees got the wood they wanted delivered to their mill yards. He shops around for good servicing back-up when it comes to equipment acquisitions.
Much of it is up-to-date Cat and John Deere machines, with Volvo loaders performing well in the Chetwynd aspen application. A commonality of machines is useful for maintenance reasons, he notes. On one site visited, a John Deere 1710 was more than living up to Humphreys’ expectations. Ex-Newfoundler Roy Wall and McLeod Lake Band operator Edwin Berle were double shifting the machine. About four forwarded loads—approximately 52 cubic metres—made an off-highway truck load for the short haul to Abitibi’s mill. Duz Cho doesn’t run its own logging trucks, although four McLeod Lake Band members are owner-operators. Up to 40 logging trucks are sub-contracted during the busiest times. Bunchers and processors are sub-contracted as required.
Duz Cho recently finished off an interesting job at Mackenzie’s municipal airport. A Hitachi Zaxis 250 Forester equipped with an HTH 622 Waratah processing head was making two accurately measured sorts and it was taking tops. The move made sense because East Fraser Fiber Co’s Mackenzie chip plant was just a short distance away. Humphreys says Duz Cho has developed a good working relationship with East Fraser; it also takes pulp wood from the Treaty 8 holdings. The mountain pine beetle epidemic has spread through the Mackenzie region, with all its associated grief for local contractors and licensees. Duz Cho was removing a few small volume, infested patches close to town before the next beetle flight. At another show overlooking the Williston Lake Reservoir, harvesting crews were busy bringing in the season’s final volumes.
One of Duz Cho’s five Cat 527s was on-site with 15-year company veteran Robert Martin at the controls. Martin and Richard Wuttunee are Duz Cho’s longest serving employees. Humphreys says the company fully utilizes its 527s, finding them good candidates for steep ground, low ground pressure situations. Humphreys is optimistic about Duz Cho, despite the changes and uncertainties in the BC forest industry. “We’re trying to position ourselves to diversify and continue to grow the company.” Something that shows up on Duz Cho’s printed matter is revealing. It reads: “Making sure the footprints we leave behind are the ones our children will be proud to walk in.” Now that’s a mission statement.
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