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Prarie Partnership

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Wapawekka Lumber general manager
Don MacDonald (above) points out
the new mill uses logs that had
previously been destined for the chipper.

By Tony Kryzanowski

The face of forestry in the Prince Albert area of north - central Saskatchewan is changing to reflect a more value -added use of the province’s wood resource, as well as a more diversified allocation of the region’s massive wood basket.

One of the key linchpins to this recent trend is Weyerhaeuser Canada, which has partnered with three First Nations groups to build a new dimension mill — the Wapawekka sawmill — near Prince Albert. The company has also proposed to return the rights to 20 per cent of their Forest Management License Area (FMLA), or one million hectares of forested land, to the Saskatchewan government for possible reallocation to other forestry operators.

There has been widespread complaint among many forestry operators in the province that their ability to expand has been stunted due to poor availability of timber. That situation would change significantly for the better should the province accept Weyerhaeuser’s offer.

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Weyerhaeuser says their decisions to build the Wapawekka sawmill and voluntarily relinquish a huge chunk of their FMLA are unrelated, since the sawmill has been in the planning stages for the past two years.

"The Wapawekka decision was in some ways a good utilization of the fibre," says Weyerhaeuser Prince Albert public affairs manager Wayne Roznowsky. "We also felt the future in Saskatchewan is to become more involved with our aboriginal partners. Mainly, it was the right thing to do. It is a very unique partnership for us."

The company already has a high representation of First Nations people among their harvesting and silviculture contractors. The aboriginal - owned Woodland Cree Enterprises is one of their existing contractors, and they estimate that First Nations people represent about 50 per cent of their overall forestry work force.

Weyerhaeuser first arrived on the Saskatchewan scene in 1986 with the purchase of Prince Albert Pulp and Paper, as well as Big River Lumber. This most recent business venture is seeing the company and the Woodland Cree First Nations of Lac La Ronge Indian Band, Montreal Lake and Peter Ballantyne Cree Nations investing $22.5 million to build the Wapawekka sawmill, which is 51 per cent owned by Weyerhaeuser and 49 per cent by the First Nations groups.

The federal government has provided $887,500 to the First Nations partners toward the creation of the sawmill project. The federal contribution consists of $450,000 from the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs and $437,500 provided by Aboriginal Business Canada. This move is in keeping with the objectives of Gathering Strength — Canada’s Aboriginal Action Plan, a federal government initiative.

"This partnership demonstrates co-operation between First Nations, big business and government to the betterment of First Nations people and Saskatchewan in general," says Chief Harry Cook of the Lac La Ronge First Nation. "First Nations have, in the past, been involved primarily in harvesting and silviculture activities. Now we have the opportunity to move into the manufacturing and ownership side of a resource industry."

The sawmill began production in May, with a planned 29-month startup period. They hope to quickly achieve annual production of 50 million board feet on a two-shift basis, but have set a target of 70 million board feet over three shifts. About 94 per cent of the mill’s production will be structural grade lumber that will be transported to Big River for drying and planing. The new mill will create about 50 direct jobs.

Prior to the sawmill’s construction, logs such as those now destined for Wapawekka would have been chipped for use in the Weyerhaeuser pulp mill. Roznowsky says Saskatchewan’s forests are a fire – driven ecosystem, with shorter stems and higher taper per foot. Without recent advances in curved sawing technology, the pine and spruce would have had very little market value beyond pulpwood.

Wapawekka general manager Don MacDonald says the advent of curved sawing technology has made all the difference. "Traditionally, we wouldn’t be able to get a lot of recovery out of this wood and that’s what has always made it a challenge," he says. "But with the advent of Hewsaw and McGehee equipment, which are the two primary small log breakdown lines that are available to our industry, we are able to actually get reasonable recovery in high-value wood, instead of chips."

While the wood is small with challenging taper, it consists of small growth rings and tight knots. "Our end-product is going to be engineered wood," says MacDonald. "The majority of this wood will be machine stress - rated which will be done in Big River. "They hope to capture 60 per cent or more high-value products, which will command a premium.

The sawmill will manufacture dimension lumber from logs with a maximum butt size of approximately 11 inches. They will be chopped to a 3.5-inch top. The residual wood will be chipped and used at Weyerhaeuser’s pulp mill.

Transporting logs from the stockpile to the infeed represents another local employment opportunity. Contracting this function out is a rather unique approach, as it places the onus on the contractor to maintain wood flow to the mill.

Once the logs reach the infeed, they are fed into the mill using a Tanguay pedestal-mounted log-loading crane. The log infeed and 72-inch cutoff saw was provided by Huot, while New West Industries provided the log step ladder. The infeed area delivers logs at about 400 feet per minute.

Wapawekka uses a Nicholson 17-inch A5B single ring debarker. The single break down line features a McGehee small-log curved sawing machine that processes logs from eight to 16 feet. MacDonald says they researched all of the major curved sawing systems available, but in their opinion McGehee offered just a little more in certain key areas. "McGehee makes a quality machine that is very heavy duty," says MacDonald.

"You’ll see three-quarter-inch plate in the equipment, something you won’t see in some of the others. And McGehee is head-quartered on the West Coast," he says, adding that the availability of service support was a major issue. The McGehee unit also gives them the capability to produce one-inch material.

Once past the main breakdown unit, sideboards will kick out to a McGehee two-saw board edger, while cants will continue to a trim line that features a Newnes 16-foot valley two-saw trimmer, and Newnes sorter and stacker.

Prior to entering the main McGehee breakdown unit, the logs are scanned for optimization. This was provided by Nelson Brothers Engineering. Allen Bradley provided the line’s process controls. Wapawekka’s objective is to process 9,000 logs every eight hours, or 19 logs per minute. Their recovery objective is 215 board feet per cubic metre, dried and trimmed.

MacDonald says they have built very little surge mechanisms into the line. It is designed for just-in-time delivery at each of the machine centres, and purposely designed for high utilization. This places a huge responsibility on line operators. To support this, Wapawekka has adopted a team-based approach to production with high levels of empowerment.

The first challenge is to ensure they have properly trained employees who demonstrate an ability to work in this type of work-place environment. While some of those hired have sawmilling experience, most require full training. Wapawekka is providing this training in co-operation with the Saskatchewan and federal governments. This partially accounts for the 29-month startup period, but MacDonald says compared to other green field projects, their start up window is well within the norm.

"The expectation is that everyone will be able to run all the equipment over time," says MacDonald, which explains why everyone is referred to as a technician. Maintenance skills will be built into each operating team and supervision will be minimal.

"The work philosophy is built around quality assurance in each function. Our objective is to hire people who not only have the value system we are looking for, but the ability to grow and develop their technical skills," he adds. They want to maintain an aboriginal presence in the saw mill, which reflects the First Nations participation; the challenge is to maintain that presence over the long term. Whether Wapawekka eventually operates its own planing and drying facility depends on how well the business is managed. The partners want the business to prove itself before making any further capital commitment, although there is space available for these additional processes, as well as for an additional production line in the saw mill.

Historically, Wapawekka was a place — coincidentally on Weyerhaeuser’s FMLA — where the Woodland Cree First Nations would gather together. Now that meeting place has moved further south and includes a major multinational company which, along with the First Nations groups, is making plans for the future. "We are here for the long term," concludes Weyerhaeuser’s Wayne Roznowsky. "It was just a natural step."

sawmill03.jpg (56976 bytes)
The single breakdown line at Wapawekka includes a McGehee small log
curved – sawing machine that processes logs from eight to 16 feet. The
overall annual production target for the mill is 50 million board feet on
a two-shift basis.

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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004