By Tony Kryzanowski
Large-scale hardwood sawmilling is making a comeback in one of Canada’s oldest commercial forests thanks to recent investments made by two Ontario forester brothers and their colleagues—and growing the business over time is definitely their game plan.
Malcolm and Gareth Cockwell are the sons of Canadian businessman, Jack Cockwell, a founding principal of the iconic investment company, Brookfield Asset Management. Blue chip company Brookfield Asset Management, which is publicly traded, is one of Canada’s top asset managers, with over $626 billion (U.S.) in assets under management, and is a major investor in both real estate and natural resources.
Malcolm and Gareth fell in love with the picturesque hardwood forest between Toronto and Algonquin Park—in what is widely known as Ontario’s Cottage Country—at a young age, when Jack Cockwell acquired the 4,050 hectare, Limberlost Forest and Wildlife Reserve located near Huntsville in the late 1980s.
“We spent a lot of time working up there and it exposed us independently to becoming interested in the forest products sector to the point that through different paths and different institutions, we both ended up studying forestry and becoming foresters,” says Malcolm Cockwell. He graduated from the University of Toronto and brother Gareth graduated from the University of New Brunswick.
Over the years through his work at Brookfield, Jack Cockwell’s business holdings included many companies active in the resource sector, including forestry, and he always expressed a great respect for and interest in those industries. That respect rubbed off on his sons. They also recognized that land values north of Toronto will likely increase substantially over the next 150 years and that as more private land is sub-divided, the available hardwood resource from that area is actually diminishing while hardwood lumber sawmilling capacity in North America is shrinking every year. This means fewer industry suppliers chasing fewer accessible logs. In other words, all the hardwood sawmilling business metrics are trending positive.
In 2016, they completed the purchase of another property, the 40,000 hectare, Haliburton Forest & Wild Life Reserve, about three hours north of Toronto and located near Algonquin Park. Malcolm is Managing Director of this commercial forest and recreational property that the group purchased from Peter Schleifenbaum, a forestry PhD born in Germany and longtime advocate of European-style sustainable forest management practices.
Beginning in the 1960s and for over 50 years, Schleifenbaum managed the property for its commercial forest, log home supply and recreational value. It became known for its 325 campsites and outdoor adventures like canoeing, hiking, snowmobiling, and dog sledding, as well as for its unique timber wolf enclosure. Schleifenbaum eventually built a small sawmill in 2008 to take more control over how the property’s timber was processed.
The Reserve continues to operate today under the same business model, but the investment group has continued to expand its forest holdings and sawmilling capacity.
In early 2019, they purchased Almaguin Forest Products, two hours west in South River, and in the fall of 2020, they acquired the hardwood sawmill previously owned by Rayonier Advanced Materials in the town of Huntsville. It now operates as Huntsville Forest Products.
Under the leadership of General Manager Bill Miller, all three sawmills now operate under the umbrella of Haliburton Forest & Wild Life Reserve Ltd, representing a doubling in size of the group’s sawmilling production potential twice in two years. Today, they produce 19 million board feet annually of primarily hardwood products on a one-shift basis and have about 150 employees, which includes their tourism division.
“There are a couple of fundamental truths of all sawmills and one of them is that the ambition to grow never goes away,” says Malcolm.
Purchase of the Huntsville operation, described as a ‘mature’ sawmill operating consistently since the 1970’s, with an experienced staff and with an attractive wood basket, was a major step for the company. In the short term, the new owners plan to add railway tie production in Huntsville, and down the road they intend to implement a major reorganization of the close-quartered mill to improve production and efficiency.
Malcolm says that he, his brother and their colleagues love forest management and the forestry business, often working in their offices or out in the cutblock well after hours or on weekends. The same is true of many of their employees which includes nine full time foresters and forest technicians in their Southern Ontario operations who conduct all the forest management planning for their freehold properties and assist with management on their Crown holdings. The forestry staff is led by Thomas McCay, RPF, the Chief Forester, who is now responsible for managing one of the largest hardwood forest baskets in Ontario. Independent contractors do the logging.
The recent purchase of the Huntsville hardwood mill was a good geographic fit, since it is located between their Haliburton and South River operations, and it has the capacity to eventually triple its production to 30 million board feet per year. But for now, the company is focused on optimizing their sawmills with the goal of earning a reputation for being a steady, long term supplier of hardwood lumber products to their customers. What expansion has brought to the organization is a large number of experienced new employees with a lot of knowledge.
However, the group’s investments in the forest industry hasn’t stopped at the borders of Cottage Country. They recently purchased another nearly 60,000-hectare private forest known as the Timmins Forest and Wild Life Preserve near Timmins, Ontario and own a 45 per cent stake in New Brunswick-based and publicly-traded, Acadian Timber Corp, which was acquired in summer 2019. Acadian logs commercial timber on its properties in New Brunswick and Maine.
Back in Ontario, the marketable wood products produced on their three sawmills fall into three categories: appearance grade lumber, industrial grade lumber and residuals from primarily mature sugar maple in the 40 centimetre range, although they manufacture wood products from a variety of other hardwoods such as oak, cherry, birch and ash. All of their products are green rough lumber. There is about a 50-50 split between their appearance grade and industrial grade products. They also harvest and saw some hemlock that is used primarily to supply their log home business.
Appearance grade lumber is used in flooring, furniture and cabinetry. Industrial grade products consist primarily of railway ties and pallet stock. A large percentage of their bark and sawdust is used in landscaping, while chips are sold to the pulp industry.
Some of their wood supply comes from their private forest holdings and some from Crown forest harvesting licenses through membership in various Sustainable Forest License (SFL) managed areas.
Malcolm says that operating commercial logging and sawmilling operations within Cottage Country is challenging, but they approach forest management from what he called a certain land ethic focused on long term forest stewardship. They practice sustainable select harvesting with the goal of a healthier and more productive forest over its natural growth horizon that eventually yields bigger trees and higher value wood products.
“We’re pretty proud of how we push to get better and better, and invest in research and continuous improvement in the woods to reduce our impact, improve our yield, and over time improve the forest itself,” says Malcolm. “Do what’s best for the forest itself during each intervention and in the fullness of time, you will create value throughout the succession.”
The fact that there is a demographic shift in this part of Ontario—where the population of casual cottagers is evolving into a more permanent population of city migrants who have little knowledge of the forest industry—is not lost on Malcolm. While he is confident that it won’t lead to reduced logging activity, he is keenly aware of the need to regularly share information about their logging practices and the natural succession of the forest with those raising these issues.
“We need to make more effort to earn our social license to keep the non-forestry folks interested and understanding, and especially to get the new ones onto that page,” he says.
One of his major concerns for the coming years is the impact that invasive species could have on forest health. That’s already evident from the mortality rate of healthy American beech trees suffering from bark rot because of the impact of a fungus from Europe. Cockwell says that about 20 per cent of many parts of the commercial forest in that part of Ontario is facing 100 per cent beech wood mortality, resulting in a major impact on forest succession as beech could develop into more of a thicket species than a commercial crop.
“We have to put more effort into monitoring and mitigating the impact of invasive pests,” says Malcolm. “Climate change is a problem as well. Who knows how that is going to benefit or hurt the forest—it is such a wild card.”
Another business risk that concerns him is the growing shortage of logging contractors and specifically chainsaw operators, and he believes that recruitment now will definitely pay dividends in future. So encouraging youth to consider logging
as a career is a company priority.
Acluster of three Ontario sawmills producing primarily hardwood products—owned by foresters Malcolm and Gareth Cockwell and a group of colleagues—marks a significant ramp up of commercial forestry activity in the midst of one of Canada’s oldest wood baskets.
The sawmills operating as Haliburton Forest Products in Haliburton, Almaguin Forest Products in South River, and Huntsville Forest Products in Huntsville currently produce about 19 million board feet per year on a one-shift basis, but each has the capability to operate up to three shifts.
The forests north of Toronto as far as the Ottawa River were part of Upper Canada prior to Confederation, and were critical in the growth of Canada as a nation.
The group’s newest acquisition, in 2020—from Rayonier Advanced Materials—was the hardwood mill in Huntsville. It features a Nicholson ring debarker leading into a McDonough double cut band headsaw featuring a Cleereman carriage. Boards are then processed through one of the sawmill’s most recent capital upgrades, a McDonough linebar vertical resaw with Maxx infeed to improve grade recovery and overall mill production. The next steps are the TS Manufacturing bull edger and TS Manufacturing, two person, Canadian-style trimsaws. Other TS equipment in the mill includes all vibrating conveyors, unscrambler and Canadian style trimmers. The gang is an optimized guided gang saw.
Lumber graders use a voice tally system and residuals are processed through a Forano chipper.
The Huntsville sawmill currently produces about 10 million board feet annually on a one shift basis.
The Almaguin Forest Products sawmill in South River produces about four million board feet annually on a one-shift basis. It was built and purchased in 2019 and began production in July that year.
It features a Morbark debarker leading into a PHL double cut band headsaw with a Cardinal-brand carriage.
The boards proceed through a vintage bull edger and then to a custom, one person, trim saw. The graders at this facility also use a voice tally system and the plant features a Morbark chipper.
“This purchase was a pretty big investment at the time and a good improvement,” says Malcolm Cockwell. “We spent 2020 making a lot of tweaks to the process to improve production. We learned a lot about operating this as a ‘start up’ sawmill. The biggest lesson we learned was to call in the experts early. Do not try to troubleshoot everything yourself, like we did at first.”
The Haliburton Forest Products sawmill manufactures about five million board feet annually on a one-shift basis and was the group’s first sawmill purchase in 2010.
It features a Morbark debarker leading to a circular headsaw with a Helle-brand carriage. The boards proceed through a West Plains horizontal resaw and vintage bull edger. After that, they are processed through a Cleereman high speed, double cut, one person trimsaw. The grading is also done with a voice tally system with residuals processed through a Forano chipper.
A full size, Canadian Scale-brand weigh scale was added in 2019, giving the company a better idea of how much log volume enters the yard.
“We added the new trimsaw in 2020 to improve grade and overall product recovery,” says Malcolm. “We also added the new resaw in 2020 to replace our old, custom resaw to improve overall production and product recovery since our old resaw was very slow. We can now divert more high quality cants from the circular headsaw to the lower kerf band resaw.”
On the Cover:
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Two brothers—both foresters—have built a hardwood sawmill chain that works out of the forests of Ontario’s well-known Cottage Country, north of Toronto.
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