Salvaging the Burn
A partial switch to cut-to-length equipment is delivering benefits to an Alberta company as it kicks burned timber salvage into high gear.
The drive from Edmonton to Slave Lake, Alberta has always been a scenic one, especially in the fall when the tamarack needles turn a blazing orange against the deep evergreen of surrounding spruce and pine trees. But this year, the view is not nearly so picturesque. In fact, it is shocking to witness the carnage perpetrated by Alberta's spring fires. Yet the blackened image of charred forests has also raised a question: just how long do forestry companies have to salvage standing timber after a fire?
Two years maximum, says Darrel Mackay, woodlands manager for Vanderwell Contractors. After that, the bugs take over.
Vanderwell Contractors is a privately held company owned by Bob Vanderwell, located just east of Slave Lake. It's a random-length dimension sawmill, with annual production of 500,000 cubic metres. With approximately 250 employees, Vanderwell exports about 65 per cent of its production to the US, with 35 per cent sold domestically.
Vanderwell Contractors Ltd. was among the hardest hit by Alberta's spring fires. Most of the province experienced a snow-free winter, probably not seen on such a massive scale since the 1930s. While city dwellers basked in the warm winter weather courtesy of El Nino, forestry companies wondered how long it would be before a fire ignited, given no snow cover and extremely dry conditions. Finally, the inevitable happened, and the province was faced with a natural disaster.
All told, Vanderwell estimates between two and three million cubic metres of their timber supply were damaged by two separate fires. The most heartbreaking loss occurred in about 3,500 hectares of cutblocks that were in various stages of regeneration. While there is an opportunity to salvage burned timber, burned regenerated blocks are a complete loss. In some cases, 15 years of growth was set back to square one.
The challenge now is to harvest as much wood as possible during the first year. Two years ago, the company decided to harvest a portion of their timber using cut-to-length (CTL) equipment, in both commercial thinning and clear cutting applications. Marshalling their CTL and tree-length equipment into the burn area will result in more salvaged wood.
"We hope we can minimize the number of areas we have to bypass because we have cut-to-length equipment," says Mackay, "and we can utilize that smaller-diameter wood."
Making better use of their smaller timber was the main reason why, two years ago, Vanderwell asked their two main tree-length contractors to also purchase CTL equipment.
"We saw an opportunity in our Forest Management Area (FMA) to do a lot of commercial thinning, which we do predominantly in the summer months," says Mackay. "Then we move to clearcutting in the winter." He says they realized that there were plenty of roundwood stands in the forest that were not being managed to their potential; using a CTL system has helped them maximize those under-utilized stands.
"By going into those stands with CTL equipment, we aren't crashing and bashing, which normally happens with a feller buncher/grapple skidder," he adds.
Their goal is to convert up to 30 per-cent of their harvesting to CTL, and currently their three contractors have made a heavy commitment to Timberjack CTL equipment. Roger's Logging and Zell Oilfield Services have both purchased Timberjack 1270 harvesters complemented by eight-wheel, 15-tonne, 1210 forwarders. The third contractor, RT and T Logging, is using a Timberjack 608 harvester with a Rottne forwarder.
"Quality is something we are trying to stress with CTL," says Mackay. 'We don't want to be bringing in a lot of wasted wood that we can't make lumber out of here. We wanted equipment that wasn't too small, yet not too big." The equipment line had to be versatile.
Roger's Logging and Zell Oilfield Services have had positive experiences with Timberjack equipment in the tree-length segment of their operations. "I think the reason they went to Timberjack on CTL equipment was that they have Timberjack feller bunchers," says Mackay, "and the service was there."
He says among the disadvantages to CTL harvesting is the expense. Commercial thinning is expensive, but Vanderwell Contractors hopes that it will pay off down the road, with significantly improved incremental growth among trees remaining in commercially thinned stands.
"Through crop plans, we've projected incremental growth in the neighbourhood of 400 to 800 cubic metres per hectare, versus 200," he says. "Generally, by taking out poorer-quality stems, you are allowing your remaining trees to put on that incremental volume." Once an area has been commercially thinned, a second cut is generally done 10 years later, followed by a final cut in another 10 to 15 years.
CTL equipment is expensive, requiring owners to keep it operating over an extended period. While Vanderwell's tree-length operation will span three to four months, their CTL equipment works about nine months. On the positive side, it is one way to keep experienced operators working.
So far, the Timberjack combination has worked well, but has required some added protection. Canadian forest floors have considerably more dead and dying trees, conditions that make it easy to pop hydraulic hoses. This is hardly ever a problem in the manicured tree plantations of Scandinavia, so contractors have had to work with Timberjack to install extra guarding to avoid the problem.
Mackay says they have realized two benefits from having CTL equipment in their operations to salvage burned timber. Firstly, they experienced practically no fire damage in stands that were commercially thinned. The spring fires tended to hop from stand to stand, burning throughout a wide area. A drive through the burn region shows green timber mixed with burnt. In one case, a ground fire burned for four days in one of Vanderwell's commercially thinned stands without any of the trees catching fire. The area had been thinned so well that the fire had no way of leaping from the understorey. Thus, a major investment was saved.
The second benefit with CTL equipment is the company can time their salvage harvest so that smaller-diameter timber harvested by the CTL equipment can be delivered to the sawmill first. Normally, they would be forced to salvage the largest and best timber and leave the rest. That is an important cost consideration because in Alberta, any hectares taken out of production must be replanted, including burned areas; if Vanderwell can salvage smaller timber, it makes the replanting cost more affordable down the road.
The only way to cope with fire is to look forward, and Vanderwell Contractors Ltd. has done that. They are in the process of adding a third sawmill production line to the two that already exist to handle the extra timber volume. Plus, their tree-length operations were back in business by mid-June, versus waiting till fall. They had already harvested 100,000 cubic metres from the burn area in 45 days.
"We're tying to maximize everything in one year to reduce the impact of the fire," says Mackay. The issue now is how to find a market for that extra lumber, in an era of export quotas to the US, and during a saturated lumber market.
Vanderwell and other Alberta contractors are hoping for a sympathetic ear from US legislators to help market this unexpected extra production with perhaps a temporary adjustment to quota amounts. Those negotiations are ongoing.
Since purchasing his Timberjack CTL harvester and forwarder, Roger Moore, owner of Roger's Logging, has also invested in a Denharco 550 processing head mounted on a Komatsu carrier.
Moore has adopted a small timber harvesting method that is also being followed in central Alberta. He is utilizing a Timberjack 618 feller buncher at the start of the harvesting process for simply knocking down timber. He then follows up with either the Timberjack 1270 harvester or his new Komatsu/Denharco unit to process the trees at the stump. The 1210 forwarder is then used to transport the wood.
He says that CTL harvesting was new to them when they purchased the equipment about two years ago. It took some time to understand the equipment's capabilities, and to find a qualified operator. They found that they could not achieve the volumes they needed while operating the unit as a harvester and processor in small timber. Their lack of experience with this method, as well as the difficulty of keeping good operators, caused them to consider the alternative method of using the 1270 simply as a processor. In so doing, they have more than doubled the machine's up time.
This ability to knock down more wood and process at the stump has worked extremely well in the Vanderwell Contractors' salvage operation. Because the wood is dry, any significant amount of wind will blow down the standing timber; so, the more trees they can knock down in as short a time as possible, the better.
Moore says despite their problems with learning how to maximize the productivity of their CTL equipment, Timberjack has been extremely helpful.
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