By Jim Stirling
Seaton Forest Products is a venture focused on utilizing low grade wood—but it’s generating a raft of high grade benefits. The small sawmilling company located near Witset (Moricetown) in the Bulkley Valley region of west central British Columbia punches well above its weight.
Like all good entrepreneurs, the principals behind Seaton Forest Products were hoping to find practical uses for regionally sourced fibre that no else was using. In the case of Kirsteen Laing (the administrator) and Andy Thompson (manager) with Seaton, they found it in the form of dry, decadent balsam. The fibre type now comprises about 80 per cent of their wood basket with the balance in dry pine and spruce. The desiccated wood is riddled with cracks and checks. Those defects spell expensive headaches with minimal returns for the large scale dimension lumber producing mills which dominate the B.C. Interior. So it’s been left in the forest. But when manufactured into cants, the discarded wood is in demand for the options it presents to sectors of the construction materials market in China.
Now, with the assistance of supportive partners, the mill is providing benefits on several levels. It is helping clean up the surrounding forests and making them safer, reducing the carbon impact from the abandoned timber—and creating needed employment for First Nations and others. Additionally, Seaton is also finding a home for the residual wood chips produced through the cant manufacturing process. About 50 per cent of the product is converted to cants, the rest into chips. “The result is 100 per cent utilization of our fibre,” says Laing. “And that’s pretty sweet.” Indeed: especially when it’s achieved using fibre the rest of the industry deemed disposable.
Seaton Forest Products represents more than the object lesson in utilization. For Thompson, the cant mill represents a long time wish fulfilled. “I always wanted to own a sawmill ever since I first worked in B.C. in 1973,” he explains. “It was in the blood.”
Thompson’s determination to achieve his ownership goal was tested on an earlier occasion. But a tragic fire on a frigid night in Fort St. James, B.C. left that dream in embers. The timing this time around has also proved more fortuitous for Laing. A graduate forester from the University of British Columbia, Laing has travelled widely, as well as working as a forestry consultant in the B.C. Interior. She was at the point of wanting a new challenge that would keep her busy and utilize her forest industry skills, Laing explains.
“We began work on the mill in June 2015 and it was operational in 2016,” recalls Laing. “We built the operation from scratch as a cant mill because that was we have got the logs for,” adds Thompson. The mill was also designed along the KISS principle: keeping it simple without sacrificing efficiency and a measure of versatility.
The plant is designed to produce about 80,000 cubic metres annually.
The round dry logs are converted into squared cants on two lines in the mill. The material 15 inches and smaller in diameter is reduced on a double scragg system, with the 16-inch diameter and up logs directed through a headrig side. The first scragg was manufactured by Mainland Elworthy, while Thompson describes the second scragg as a “Heinz 57”. The quality control and recovery decisions are made by two sawyers between the two scragg passes. “Those two have been with us all the way and do an excellent job,” says Thompson. An Exco headrig makes four passes to square the cants on the large log side.
The operation produces cants up to 16 feet in length, making them compatible for B-train truck transportation. A conveyor from the mill feeds the operation’s 72 inch CAE chipper. “It’s like a small whole log chipper,” describes Thompson. Four to five loads of chips a day are trucked the 30 kilometres or so to the Pinnacle Renewable Energy/West Fraser Timber Company’s joint venture industrial wood pellet manufacturing plant in Smithers, B.C. (see Logging and Sawmilling Journal’s May 2019 issue).
Seaton Forest Products isn’t in the logging business, but is a purchaser of logs suitable for its cant making operations. “We buy suitable logs from logging contractors, from West Fraser Timber, through BC Timber Sales, woodlot licence holders and community forests,” outlines Laing.
Seaton usually employs around 20 to 24 people, 70 to 80 per cent of whom are from local First Nation communities and that’s a source of pride for Laing and Thompson. It’s also a boon to the local area economy where employment options are extremely limited. Seaton is able to offer steady employment and an opportunity to learn valuable skills in a very hands-on working environment.
Seaton Forest Products’ ability to turn “wasted” wood into viable products, reduce carbon emissions and create jobs mostly for aboriginal workers attracted the interest of the Forest Enhancement Society of B.C. (FESBC). The FESBC, with the support of the federal government, invested $2.5 million in Seaton Forest Products in 2018 to support a three-and-a-half-year long project. Essentially what the funding allows is for Seaton to go further afield than it could otherwise afford to do in search of its dry, decadent wood fibre source. It means spreading the benefits further. More wood that no one else wants is removed from the bush so it doesn’t end up being burned, releasing carbon into the atmosphere, or simply being left on site where it becomes a wildfire liability. The funding also helps sustain the employment opportunities Seaton Forest Products is able to offer.
The FESBC has been very effective in supporting projects around the province that fit its mandate. The B.C. government has invested $238 million in FESBC, of which $237.6 million has been allocated for 269 forest enhancement projects as of March 2021. The society says it has empowered local people who want to do local projects that contribute to the achievement of climate change goals and enhance B.C.’s forests through: wildfire risk mitigation; accelerated ecological recovery after wildfires; wildlife habitat enhancement; and increased utilization of forest fibre.
Seaton Forest Products has forged another successful partnership. This one has resulted in four equipment keys to success in its millyard “Our John Deere yard equipment has been super reliable,’ credits Thompson. “It comes down to a simple fact: we have to ship our products to our customers in a timely fashion to stay in business—and these John Deere machines allow us to do just that,” he adds. The company’s John Deere foot soldiers are: a Deere 624K RTF200 forklift; a Deere 724K loader with a 10-yard chip bucket; a Deere 644K loader with a log grapple and a Deere 2656 G log loader. The John Deere equipment was supplied and is supported by the Brandt Group, which has a John Deere dealership in nearby Smithers.
“If we need anything, Brandt is right there,” says Thompson. “And that’s good to know.”
On the Cover:
The last 18 months have been challenging times, with sawmills looking to meet record-high lumber demand. And for a few firms that were expanding, such as The Westervelt Company, they faced the challenge of how to go about building a new sawmill at a time of COVID. But the company was able to meet that challenge, and in fact were able to finish building their new sawmill ahead of schedule, thanks in part to its project partners, such as B.C.-based BID Group, who built the new mill on a turnkey basis. Read all about the project beginning on page 14 of this issue (Cover photo courtesy of The Westervelt Company).
What’s next with the beetle in B.C.?
After a period of exponential growth, and then a slowdown, a big question lingers about the beetle situation in British Columbia—what’s coming next?
A more flexible Lakeview sawmill
Tolko Industries’ Lakeview sawmill in B.C. has completed an upgrade that will result in increased flexibility, while working with a changing wood basket.
Delivering the goods—ahead of schedule
The Westervelt Company was able to build its brand new sawmill ahead of schedule, thanks in part to its project partners, such as B.C.-based BID Group, who built the new mill on a turnkey basis.
Upgrading the family logging operation
Ontario’s Devlin Timber has a proud history—with the fourth generation of the Devlin family now working for the company—and has recently upgraded operations with the addition of new Kenworth trucks that are helping it tackle long hauls in northwestern Ontario.
Low grade wood = high grade benefits
Seaton Forest Products has a focus on utilizing low grade wood at its mill operation in the B.C. Interior, and it’s generating some high grade benefits from fibre that no one else wants—dry, decadent balsam.
Five tips on how to properly maintain your log loader undercarriage
Contractors can extend undercarriage life on their log loaders by following some routine maintenance procedures.
We take a look at chainsaws, bars and chainsaw safety equipment in this issue’s Tech Update.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC) and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
Jim Stirling says there seems to be a misplaced calm in B.C.’s forest industry as the winter log harvesting season approaches, as there is no lack of concerns.