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May 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal

SMALL SAWMILLING

Being resourceful

BC’s Group Mills is being resourceful and creative in meeting evolving needs for quality wood products with its mill and harvesting operations, but it is struggling with getting access to sufficient timber resources.

By Jim Stirling

Karl Bergman (left) and David Bergman. Karl affectionately calls their main sawmill “an old dinosaur,” but it has proven to be a faithful servant to Group Mills.

Standing beneath the mist-shrouded tree tops, you swear you can hear the gentle, steady rainfall being sucked up by the cedar and the spruce in this piece of northwestern British Columbia. “Our dream is to establish this as a sustainable woodlot and build a road through the heart of it,” says Karl Bergman. “From it, we could manage and farm our tree volumes and try to take advantage of what’s standing there.” If a customer wants products from a big spruce, for example, it can be logged and custom cut to whatever specifications are required. But realizing the dream has run into a provincial forest ministry roadblock, at least temporarily. “We spent more than six months in 2004 waiting for a cutting permit,” says Bergman. “There’s only so much money in the kitty.” He’s not sure why the prolonged delays are happening.

He does know the wait is continuing into 2005. “We’ve crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’ and given them all the paperwork they’ve required,” adds Bergman’s brother, David, and a partner in Group Mills Ltd. “We need the ministry’s help,” say the Bergmans. So does all of Oona River. The tiny community is on Porcher Island, southwest of Prince Rupert, off British Columbia’s north coast. Oona River has a rich heritage entwining the forest and the sea. It was a boat building centre and a fishing port. But recent regulations have pushed commercial fishing out of financial reach for most fishermen in small BC coastal communities.

Karl and David Bergman with their Cat 320 with high riser cab and wide pads which—with attachments—makes for a solid multi-tasking tool.

That leaves the forest industry. There’s been logging and small-scale sawmilling on Porcher Island for most of the last century. John Group established the present mill in 1949, primarily to support the local boat building industry. The Bergmans are hardly Johnny-come-latelys. The family has a three-generation involvement in the forests around Oona River. John Bergman, Karl and David’s dad, took over the running of the Group Mills operation in the late 1950s. The boys grew up in and around log harvesting and the sawmill. Today, the Bergmans’ operation is the economic mainstay of Oona River. It represents precisely the type of venture BC forest policies claim to foster.

As for the Bergmans, they want nothing more but to continue running it, hiring a few people to help them and enjoying the lifestyle it allows. But getting their seven-year-old woodlot licence re-energized and functioning fully is the key to achieving those goals. Fibre source alternatives are lean. The Bergmans say as small operators, it’s difficult to participate in BC’s Timber Sales Program because it’s geared to the big boys. That leaves possible salvage sales, non-replaceable timber sales of the right size or looking at private wood. “We try to look for access to 5,000 cubic metres a year to work as a baseline,” points out Karl Bergman. The brothers say they’ve received no explanation from the North Coast Forest District why their woodlot licence has been trimmed to 400 hectares. Ministry of Forests rules stipulate coastal woodlots can be a maximum of 800 hectares in size. In the BC Interior, it’s a 1,200-hectare maximum. “

The Bergmans with a magnificent spruce log (above). Rather than being sawn into off-the-rack type products, they’ll save the spruce—using it as a boom stick—until the right customer is found.

An 800 hectare woodlot would make it more affordable for us with our high roadbuilding and reforestation costs,” Karl adds. “My read on it is that when the ministry makes the rules, it should play by them,” says Bergman. The brothers note woodlots are governed by guidelines that should, if they’re to work properly, allow some operational flexibility within them while meeting compliance requirements. Dave Bewick, district manager for the North Coast Forest District in Prince Rupert, didn’t address specific reasons for delays surrounding Group Mills’ woodlot. “The district is working through a number of issues regarding operational planning with this woodlot,” he says. Late in January, they approved the Forest Development Plan Major Amendment. “This cleared the way for the outstanding items regarding the cutting permit submission to be resolved. Regarding these, we are working with the woodlot holder’s professional (RPF) consultant,” says Bewick.

Bureaucratic and communication problems aside, Group Mills runs a neat operation and reflect a refreshing philosophy. It is underpinned by a respect for the trees and the forest. And reinforced by a realistic understanding of what they can and cannot do. They are not interested in producing 2x4s. But they relish challenges. When a customer wants a new product or something produced to obscure specifications, they’re talking the Bergmans’ language, and the adrenaline kicks into overdrive. The nature of the resource lends itself to specialty product creation. “Cedar is a very sought after wood and Porcher Island cedar is very healthy wood with little rot,” notes Bergman. There’s not a lot that’s new around Group Mills’ operations, except the ingenuity. “On the logging side, it’s always someone else’s used equipment,” says Bergman, with a hint of pride. “We know what we want before we start and it’s very purpose-bought.”

And it’s about 50 per cent driven by price, adds David Bergman. Buying wisely and taking care of the used equipment leads to exceptional mileage from most of it. And it certainly helps that the Bergmans are practitioners of the slow and steady approach to log harvesting. “We’re making quality products so we take our time to carefully handle the resource,” explains Karl. “We pride ourselves on how slow we log.” The Bergmans operate three pieces of Caterpillar equipment, including a 320C with high riser cab and wide pads that can be multi-tasked with attachments.

An FMC skidder is a key workhorse. “It pulls well and has great traction with pads that fit the ground contours,” adds Karl. Group Mills also has a Madill 071 tower and the rigging to run a skyline. “The main sawmill is an old dinosaur,” says Karl affectionately. Its principal moving parts consist of a headrig, a four- by 36-inch Coutts edger and an Exco custom carriage with manual setworks. The main power comes from an 871 Detroit with a gen-set in front of it. There’s also a Pendu 10- by 12-inch re-saw with the versatility to break wood down into products to accommodate diverse markets. The main mill might be a dinosaur, but it continues to be a faithful servant.

The decline of the boat building industry and items like docks for the Skeena River canneries have ushered in a new era of products from the mill. More decorative products are sawn and wood is supplied to building supply stores on the mainland. When building contractor Rupert Wood N Steel in Prince Rupert comes across a need for a specialty wood product, they give the Bergmans a call. Group Mills has a 40-foot barge to transport sawn products from Porcher Island to the mainland. The Bergmans see an opportunity for cedar trusses and other components for the housing and log home building industries. The local market extends into Alberta.

Trucks dead-heading back from Prince Rupert open up a tantalizing hinterland. What it boils down to for the Bergmans is filling high-value wood product needs from its available timber. A case in point was a magnificent spruce stored by the mill. It could easily be sawn into off-the-rack type products. But the Bergmans prefer not to go that route. They can use it as a boom stick— which will keep it in good shape while being useful to them—until the right customer is found, explains David Bergman. It’s what appreciating the value of resource and custom cutting is all about.

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