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Re-Working the System

The Queen Charlottes Division of MacMillan Bloedel, now part of Weyerhaeuser, is reworking its harvesting approach with the implementation of a variable retention harvesting system.

By Jim Stirling

The helicopter provides a unique perspective. The cut block down on the hillside doesn't look like a clearcut because it is not. The focus these days is more on what to leave behind than what to take from the forest. MacMillan Bloedel-now part of Weyerhaeuser Canada calls the technique variable retention harvesting and it's the face of the company's future. That direction has been confirmed by Weyerhaeuser, which startled many in the industry with its bold announcement to acquire the venerable British Columbia forest company this past June. The goal is to switch all MB harvesting operations, including those on private lands, to variable retention within the next five years. It's a key element in MB's stated vision to become the continent's safest, most respected and successful forest company. It has been a tumultuous end to MacMillan Bloedel. The company has been shaken by its very coat tails since Tom Stephens took control as CEO in 1997.

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The slimmed down, refocused company has rarely been out of the headlines with reverberations of its revitalized business plan, its commitment to safety and its abolition of clearcutting. Now ownership has changed. But it's business as usual-as much as possible-at MB's Queen Charlotte Division in Juskatla on Graham Island. Graham is the largest island of a windswept archipelago in the Pacific Ocean about 80 kilometres from BC's northern mainland. The division is on target to convert 20 per cent of its harvesting operations to the variable retention system in 1999, the inaugural year of the phase-in. "We had to change horses in midstream with the Forest Practices Code in 1995 and we had to throw out our engineering and the costs associated with it," recalls Joe Duckworth, division manager in Juskatla. "Now, with variable retention, we're changing horses in midstream again. It's a good and necessary change, but we're not going to inflict the trauma that we had with compliance under the code." That's why the 20 per cent a year for five years approach has been adopted. "That way we can use up our inventory of blocks not under the requirements of variable retention," adds Duckworth. It also facilitates the learning curve and getting all company people on the same page. Simply put, variable retention is a silvicultural technique that ensures no timber is harvested without leaving the stand with old growth characteristics and forest influence.

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The Queen Charlottes Division's toolkit for variable retention harvesting includes helicopter logging (above). The inset photo shows a logging map reengineered for variable retention.

MB refines the definition with rules requiring more than half a cut block to be under the edge influence from a tree or group of trees. Edge influence means within the horizontal distance of one co dominant tree height. The system must also meet the requirements of the zone in terms of harvesting, habitat and old growth areas within a group of standing trees or a single stem. MB doesn't want any of its variable retention stands to look like a clearcut. Its guidelines call for four tree height distances between retained groups of trees and two heights between dispersed trees. The goal is to leave a stand that maintains sufficient volume and quality for future reentry harvesting. And it wants to promote the healthy regeneration of the next tree crop. MacMillan Bloedel established a variable retention implementation team comprised of its woodland divisions to streamline the whole process. The move to variable retention for all operations was an internal company decision but required coordination and cooperation with other agencies like the BC Ministry of Forests and Ministry of Environment. "There were on the ground concerns about what is and what is not acceptable with variable retention," says forester Jerome Dionne, part of the implementation team at Juskatla. "We know the whole world will be looking at us." Dionne says the team set rules and guidelines that were all scientifically and ecologically sound. They also needed to have the flexibility within each block to make the system operationally and logically feasible. Mating variable retention with the right timber harvesting equipment emerged as one of the challenges, after the initial wariness of the unknown had dissipated, continues Dionne. Conventional hoe chucking type machines on more level terrain lend themselves well to the guidelines and requirements of variable retention. Similarly, helicopter logging is a good fit.

It's the inbetween ground-the domain of grapple yarding and skyline systems-where the variable retention system becomes more logistically complicated. John Doucette, former development engineer at the division, concurs with that generality. Probably 60 per cent of the Queen Charlotte Division ground is greater than 30 per cent slopes requiring cable and grapple yarding harvesting equipment. "We try to leave patches in corners and close to roads that we can approach from both sides to lessen damage to residuals," says Doucette. "Our yarding crews have to grow into the system." But, he says, there have been fewer problems than expected. The operation hasn't yet noticed the increased costs they expected with moving equipment and setting lines more, he adds. Doucette notes that while heli-logging volumes are increasing, that's not because of MB's changed forest policy. "We still heli-log on sensitive slopes we couldn't access in any other way." Helicopters don't require the roads, and engineering costs are reduced, but aerial yarding still costs a lot more than other systems. The Queen Charlotte Islands are prone to storm and hurricane force winds, typically but by no means confined to southeasterlies. The designing of variable retention blocks for windfirm boundaries and tree patches is a major consideration. "We really need the fallers to make decisions on the ground," continues Doucette. "We have to identify the trees left as aggregates or individuals.

And we need options on what can be felled along the edges site specifically." He says fallers understand characteristics like rooting development and bole girth. "They can help us identify the trees in prescriptions where everything we do meets the legislated requirements." Some downed material is not all bad for a block. It can provide habitat for certain wildlife species along with woody debris and organic matter. There are other impacts from the initial stages of variable retention harvesting practices. "From my perspective, there's more activity in the engineering department," says Doucette. "Government agencies have taken an interest in what we're doing and by and large have cooperated with it as we move along with the process. There's more contact with other phases of the operation as we meet the definition of variable retention." Doucette doesn't anticipate additional road building because of variable retention. Road construction costs are 10 to 20 per cent above the BC coastal average in the Queen Charlotte Division, primarily due to the ballasting required. Reaccess to a variable retention stand comes sooner than with other harvesting systems, he notes. MB's Queen Charlotte Division has an annual allowable cut of 1.2 million cubic metres but has been harvesting around 800,000 cubic metres for the last couple of years. "That's primarily due to other constraints on the land base," says Doucette. Harvesting is split between two main full phase contractors and MB's crews. "The contractors see variable retention as a positive, a way to keep on working and selling products to our customers," he says. MB has been pursuing a division by division certification status under ISO. The Queen Charlotte Division represents a relatively isolated area, making it easier to work with other stakeholders on certification and keep track of the logs. It can be a complex trail from stump to customer, notes Doucette.

In another initiative, the division has moved to a new fleet of smaller logging trucks. Eleven new Western Star tridem logging trucks are hauling MB wood on the Charlottes. Each load is between 60 and 65 cubic metres compared with a 90cubicmetre payload on the traditional bunks. The operation wants to bring down road construction and maintenance costs. Plus it's part of a continuing trend to reduce the size of equipment as harvesting increasingly moves into second growth stands, says Doucette. There will be smaller grapple yarders and more hydraulic log loaders used in the future. Two of the new Western Stars include self loaders. Doucette says it makes them versatile for small cleanup jobs and saves having a lowbed move in a loader. Western Star trucks are made in BC and that was a consideration in MB's purchasing decision.

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