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--  Forest Management  --

Prized Forests

BC’s Slocan Forest Products has implemented an award-winning forest management system in the Kootenays.

By Paul MacDonald

forest management.jpg (79126 bytes)
Slocan Division has what it terms an Alternative Harvesting crew which consists of a low impact, low ground pressure Cat D4H tracked skidder and a crew of four, which carries out harvesting in contentious areas.

Picture that you are a contractor carrying out the harvesting plan, logging as per government regulations and guidelines. But in addition to having the forest company foreman and government forestry people review your work, which is all well and fine, you have yet another level of— unofficial— review, that of local environmental groups who are out in the woods scrutinizing many blocks you cut.

That’s the situation logging contractors and Slocan Forest Products sometimes have to deal with in their operations in the Slocan Valley area in southeastern British Columbia. If you’re a logging contractor— or the company—there is the ever-present threat of having the Sierra Legal Defense Fund all over you like a cheap suit if they believe something is not up to snuff.

"We are under the microscope," says Slocan division woodlands manager Alex Ferguson. "Next to Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island, the Slocan Valley is the biggest environmental hot spot in the province. It makes for a pretty challenging place to work given those kind of conditions."

Slocan and its contractors have responded to this challenge by quietly and simply carrying out what they said they are going to do—environmentally responsible logging. In fact, the company’s operation in the Slocan Valley was one of the first in British Columbia to receive a clean audit from the Forest Practices Board, the province’s watchdog for sound forest practices.

"We’re very proud of that," says Ferguson. "But it comes at a price. We’re doing good work, and not even having small things detailed by these kind of audits, but it does come at a price." That price initially was high delivered wood costs. However, over the past 18 months they have steadily worked on "tweaking" operations and have managed to reduce the cost by over $20 per cubic metre and are now down in the mid to low $70 range.

Richmond, BC-based Slocan Forest Products has 12 sawmills in British Columbia communities stretching from the US border in the south, to the Yukon border in the north. Although it may not be as well known in other parts of Canada as it in the west, Slocan in fact ranks as Canada’s top lumber producer on Logging and Sawmilling Journal’s authoritative list of the Top 30 Lumber Producers, with production of more than 1.5 billion board feet.

The company, founded by industry veteran Ike Barber, started more than 20 years ago with a single sawmill on the south shore of Slocan Lake—the very same sawmill that is still operating today, although it has seen a few upgrades since then.

Meeting the timber needs of Slocan’s founding sawmill are forests in the Arrow Timber Supply Area, the Kootenay Lake Timber Supply Area and Tree Farm Licence 3, all located in the Nelson Forest Region. The company has a combined annual harvest of 365,000 cubic metres from these three areas.

Over the past several years, the company’s Slocan Division has been implementing a forest management system— Ecosystem Design—that has quieted down, if not silenced, environmental groups and won praise from both the industry and the BC government. This past May, the Bill Young Award for Excellence in Integrated Forest Management was awarded to Alex Ferguson. Ferguson was recognized for his leadership in the development of Ecosystem Design, an innovative approach to forest management that involves the retention of varying amounts of forest cover depending on the ecological characteristics of the natural forest.

Wildlife Habitat Canada, an organization established in 1984 by Environment Canada, presented the division with a 1998 Forest Stewardship Award — the only one to be awarded in the province. Further, the British Columbia Government awarded the division the 1998 Forest Excellence Award in forest management for implementing Ecosystem Design in the Slocan Valley.

The Ecosystem Design system was developed directly from the work of Simon Bell of the British Forestry Commission and Nancy Diaz of the US Forest Service.

Slocan Division forestry staff collaborated with a diverse group of foresters, hydrologists, biologists and forest engineers to refine the process and apply it to the development of a number of areas in the Arrow and Kootenay Lake Forest Districts. Together, they developed a planning system that fully integrates all forest values and allows forest managers to man-age forest lands in an ecologically sound and sustainable manner.

The complex interaction of climate, topography and elevation has created a variety of ecological systems in the Slocan Valley. The most common type of forests consists of low-elevation interior cedar-hemlock, mid- to high-elevation Engelmann spruce-subalpine fir and high elevation alpine tundra. Douglas fir, western larch, lodgepole pine and white spruce are also found throughout the area.

In addition to having a variety of ecological systems, the region is also home to a variety of points of view on forest practices. The forest industry has support from the thousands of people employed in logging and milling, but the region also has a very well-developed environmental movement that has been critical of the industry.

Many of the concerns that have been raised over logging in the area reflect solid, valid issues. "People in the area, and the environmental groups, have real concerns about wildlife, biodiversity and watershed values," says Alex Ferguson.

Watershed values are of particular interest as many people living in rural areas have water licences, which entitle them to use the surface water where they are living for drinking water. Ferguson points out that in developing the forest management plan for the Arrow Timber Supply Area, for example, they were required to send notices to all watershed users—more than 1,000 of them.

Why so many users? Rural residents will build a house and they have two choices for a water supply: they can drill a well, which is likely to cost them a fair amount of money, or they can get a water licence and go up a nearby creek, build a water collection box for a fraction of the cost, and run pipe down to their house.

"Once someone has a licence, that creek becomes designated as a domestic water-shed and falls under the domestic water-shed guidelines of the Kootenay Boundary land use plan," explains Ferguson. Restrictions on rates of forest harvest and professional assessment requirements for these watersheds automatically kick in. "It’s just a small step below a community watershed in terms of obligations for forest licencees, so it’s pretty demanding."

In putting together their forest development plans, the division has to consider a number of values, including biodiversity and social values and there are distinctions. "Social values include drinking water," says Ferguson. "It’s not considered an ecological value because it’s not Mother Nature setting up a waterbox on a creek, and sticking a piece of pipe into it to run to her house." Another consideration is the visual effect of logging on the growing tourism industry in the region.

Ferguson says that in addition to addressing local concerns, they believe the Ecosystem Design approach will also help with certification. "It’s clear to us that if we develop an ecosystem management system, we’ll be several steps ahead for certification. We will be doing things on an ongoing basis to add to our knowledge on how the system works. We’ll be better able to optimize our operations within that ecosystem and certification will become a side issue for us because we’ll be far exceeding the standards."

The big question is how does this approach translate into on the ground logging practices? Ferguson says implementing the Ecosystem Design approach is an evolving process, but there is more consideration given to reflecting, as much as possible, natural disturbance patterns in the forests. They are seeking to mimic nature.

There is also a lot more emphasis toward forest retention in harvest areas vs. a straight forward clearcut. "We now try to focus our detailed block development on what needs to remain in a cut block," says Ferguson. "For us, the conventional, large clearcut blocks have long since disappeared."

They are also working with harvesting equipment new to the area. This summer, they were carrying out operational trials with forwarders. "We have a small opportunity to show what it can do. The for-warder may not be the most efficient in this particular trial area, but we think it’s important that we give it a try." They employed the services of Prince George-based contractor GK Enterprises, who will use a TransGesco TG88 in the trial.

Forwarders could prove to be especially valuable in hard to access hanging valley areas, which in the past required building expensive roads or helicopter logging.

With the steep terrain in the area, one plan is to set up a couple of mobile yarders, and maybe a conventional logging show in the bottom of the hanging valley, that would keep the forwarders busy shunting wood back and forth.

Over the last several years, the Slocan division has also successfully employed what it calls an Alternative Harvesting crew. This joint company-IWA Canada union operation involves carrying out harvesting in contentious areas with a low impact, low ground pressure Cat D4H-TSK tracked skidder.

Several years back, the company faced blockades in the New Denver flats area from environmental groups. They were eventually able to harvest in the area, and primarily used the Alternative Harvesting crew. "Our crew was nominated by the council of the town of New Denver for the BC Enviromental Award for the harvesting we did there," says Ferguson. "Considering all the local opposition we originally had going in there, that was quite a coup." The system, with a crew of four, is labour intensive, however.

Setting up the Alternative Harvesting crew illustrates the points to which the operation will go to carry out innovative and responsible harvesting. "We’ll turn over any rock to look for a new and better way of doing things."

This range of alternative logging methods does bring higher logging costs and the division has been working to get these costs under control. The woodlands operation underwent a re-organization a year ago which resulted in a move from a functional to a production approach.

"The functional approach can result in a kind of ‘silo effect’, with planning over here and operations over there," explains Ferguson. "It left too much of an opportunity for an ‘us and them’ situation in the company, and between the company and the contractors and the forest service, and that was hurting us."

There are now production teams in place for each licence and everyone is responsible for seeing the cut block through from beginning to end, with the contractors playing a bigger role. This year, for example, will see the logging contractors developing logging plans under Slocan’s supervision.

"At some point in the future, we are considering having the logging contractors as part of the layout crew. They would be laying out the cutblocks in advance and understand more of the planning process and what constraints we are under, as opposed to being involved at the very end, with the contractor saying ‘well, why the hell is the landing here?’. Under this approach, they will know why, that it might be an aesthetic or watershed issue."

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