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Balancing the Scales

Log scaling in BC is facing challenges due to government cutbacks and technology changes.

By Darcy Bernhardt

Log scalers may not be fully recognized for the vital role they play in the BC forest industry, but in reality they wield an immense amount of power and possess a vast store of expertise about the business of timber harvesting. It's clear that scaling will play a major role in the future of the forest industry-the question now is which scaling methods will be used and what changes must be made to best serve the forest industry in the future.

Computer technology now allows scale data to be transmitted electronically within minutes. "We have some companies that already have electronic data interface," says Stuart Sapinsky, district scaling supervisor for the Okanagan Timber Supply Area in Salmon Arm. "They take all their data for a month and once it's all reconciled and summarized they send it to Victoria electronically through the phone lines ."

With this new system, the data enters the harvest database and billings come out within hours. The possibilities are endless with this system. It's conceivable that there could be an average monthly payment withdrawal from a forest company's accounts, with reconciliation done once a year. This might be desirable for some companies because they have big ups and downs throughout the year.

Maintaining an accurate harvest history strikes at the very heart of forest management and the onus is on BC's log scalers to provide both industry and government with an accurate account of harvested timber. For government, scale data is used in assessing stumpage and controlling the annual allowable cut. For the forest industry, it is used to determine monetary transactions, such as buying and selling forest products and paying contractors.

Scalers play an intricate role in ensuring all parties are provided with an accurate measurement and classification of timber. They must have integrity and sound judgment and be able to make educated decisions they can support. "You don't just measure logs," explains Michelle Major, official scaler for the Ministry of Forests log sort yard in Vernon, BC. "You're handling inventory and sales. You're a mediator between whomever you're working for and the Ministry. You have to make sure everything is trackable ."

But due to continuous cutbacks within the Ministry of Forests, the scaling program is now faced with a severe lack of manpower. Sapinsky points out the irony in the government's treatment of its scalers. "We're looking at somewhere around $1.5 billion in stumpage revenue in BC and it's the scalers who are assessing that stumpage revenue ."

Considering the provincial government collects somewhere around $1.5 billion in stumpage revenue annually, scalers play a key role in determining what stumpage is paid on the timber a company logs.

According to a frustrated Sapinsky: "In Salmon Arm we've got 64 authorized scalers and 59 scaling sites. Our objective and the provincial standard is to do a check scale on every active scaler every other month. That's our minimum standard and we want to inspect these sites every month. We've got only one person doing that now-tell me how that's possible. It isn't ."

This past June, the BC Government and Service Employees' Union, citing an opinion survey done in the spring among Ministry of Forests employees, said that government budget cuts mean that timber is no longer adequately appraised and valued in BC.

Until the 1980s, Forest Service employees conducted all revenue scaling in BC. The early 1980s was a prosperous time for the BC forest industry. When a strike by government employees threatened to halt production province wide, the Ministry decided to privatize scaling and avoid risking a total shut down.

The Forest Service scalers subsequently became displaced, with some taking industry scaling jobs and some shifting into jobs as check scalers or scaling supervisors. Scalers today, observes Sapinsky, "haven't had the experience of working for the Forest Service. They're scaling for industry, and so there's a different attitude ."

The Forest Service was then faced with the task of monitoring and inspecting scale sites. A Ministry of Forests check scaler is now responsible for data monitoring, scale site inspections and check scaling. The check scaler must also ensure that scaling practices are consistent and that all timber harvested has been scaled and billed. Check scales are done randomly, with the check scaler arriving at a company site unannounced. By re-measuring loads of scaled logs and comparing scale results, the check scaler can determine whether there is a variance in the volume and value and whether the company scaler is in compliance with the scale site authorization. Sapinsky describes the delicate position a licensed scaler is in: "Scalers are working for industry companies, but they're doing the scaling for both industry and the province. Companies have been known to ask scalers to not scale too high because it's going to cost them money, and to keep their scale down, but not so far down that they fall outside the tolerances.

"When we check scale, one of the things we look for is the volume and the value comparison between the scaler's load data and the check scaler's data. There is only supposed to be up to a three per cent variance; if it's outside three per cent we can cancel and replace the company's scale. If there are any discrepancies or violations in the check scale or site inspection, the check scaler can ticket the scaler or scale site operator, set additional clauses in the site authorization, or even suspend the scaler if there is flagrant violation," says Sapinsky. "To do a proper check scale and site inspection takes half a day," says Kathy Simmons, Vernon District check scaler. "You have to check the load pretty thoroughly to search for variances between your data and the scaler's. You may have to go over some of the logs on the load and discuss them with the scaler. It takes consistent check scaling to know the caliber of the scalers and their weaknesses ."

The most significant and perhaps most difficult aspect of scaling is grading. Although the principles of grading have not changed over the years, the schedule of timber grades has evolved in response to changing demands in forest practices and administration.

With lack of staffing to monitor compliance, continuity suffers and abuse creeps in. When asked if she is aware of deliberate manipulation, Simmons responds instantly: "Manipulation? Oh yeah. I can't be everywhere ."

Mike Beauclair, an official scaler who has worked on the coast and in the interior, admits he's confused about the government's priorities. "I can't understand why the Ministry of Forests would not have more check scalers out there. I mean, they're checking for revenue that's going either directly to general revenue for the province or to FRBC. I have to represent the people of the province to make sure that general revenue is there. I have to represent the logging contractor. I have to represent the company I work for. The Forest Service should be out there checking ." Each species of timber has unique properties that affect its value and grade. Scalers must not only identify species through such indicators as bark, heartwood colour and hardness of wood, they must also be able to identify the defects common to each species and grade logs according to their quality.

Scaling methods have changed little over the years, but the methods of data capture have certainly evolved. Today a piece scaler's tools include a scale stick and a portable or handheld data capture unit, which has made scaling more efficient. Prior to the introduction of weight scales and dryland sorts, nearly all coastal production was piece-scaled from log booms in the water. Today coastal scaling involves piece scaling in dryland sort yards, with each log measured, classified by species and graded. This method, while very time-consuming, most accurately measures the value of BC's large-diameter coastal timber.

The most significant and perhaps the most difficult aspect of scaling is grading. Although the principles of grading have not changed over the years, the schedule of timber grades has evolved in response to changing demands in forest practices and administration.

"The grading used on the coast is far more intensive. Diameter class, size and location of knots, how much of the log is clear-all these factors and more determine the grade," explains Beauclair. The coastal grading system is much more defined and encompasses more than 40 separate grades, he says. "They break the grades down by species group too. Fir and pine go together, hemlock and balsam go together, but cedar, cypress and spruce are all individually scaled. You're also going from high- end logs like 90 per cent fir and clear all the way down to a "Y" grade or chipper ."

Due largely to the variety of species and the predominance of large diameter timber, Beauclair estimates that 85 per cent of the coastal production is hand-scaled and the coastal grading system gives a far better idea of the product that's available.

"In the interior, volume is the key and grading comes in afterwards," says Beauclair, who now works for Lytton Lumber Ltd. "If I'm scaling pine in the interior and a log is five meters in length and the first 2.5metre segment has a hook in the butt, that may drop the log down to a grade 4. On the coast if somebody grades it an "X" it's still eligible for full stumpage ."

The challenge of the scaler lies in assessing the visible characteristics of each log, adhering to the established schedule of log grades, and visualizing what can be recovered from the log, given its size and characteristics. An experienced scaler should be able to identify the indicators associated with a particular log, but as Sapinsky explains, a fair amount of interpretation is involved. "You don't know how far the rot goes for example, so that's a matter of experience. If you take the rot just a little bit further than the check scaler does, that log suddenly becomes a lower grade than what the check scaler assigns to it. We have two dry grades in the interior-grade 3 and grade 5. There are always logs that are borderline and that's where experience comes in ."

Beauclair outlines the problems encountered when grading interior timber. "I see a lot of logs with a dead top and a green butt-that's a green sawlog. For dead and dry grades the log must have almost no bark, which is why it can be a really fishy grade ."

What makes the interior grade 3 timber so appealing is the stumpage assigned to it. Known in the industry as "two-bit wood" licensees generally only pay 25 cents of stumpage on grade 3 timber. "Smart licensees can really capitalize on grade 3 logs by having them appropriately sorted. That way you've got all your dry logs in one sort. You're only paying two bits a metre for it ."

Changes in classification specifications, introduction of new grades and the implementation of one provincial grading system are on the horizon. Beauclair has mixed feelings about these changes. "There's going to be a lot of apprehension in the interior because most scalers up here just have their interior endorsement and they may not want to take a five-month course to learn about coastal grading. I can also see the coastal scaling system changing in about 20 years, when they're logging more second growth stands ."

Whatever direction the forest industry is headed, scalers will undoubtedly play a major role, which is likely just fine with them. As Beauclair puts it, "I enjoy what I do, I like working in timber, I like it so much I bore my wife to death almost everyday talking about it. But I always knew it was the job that I was going to make a good living at and feel good about ."

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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004