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Despite its remoteness, BC's north coast supports a variety of small wood manufacturing enterprises, spurred on by initiative and imagination.

By Jim Stirling


Timber harvesting on British Columbia's rugged north coast can be described euphemistically as challenging. The operable land base is small, typically with steep, tight valleys. Mainland and island sites are isolated with access primarily by sea or air. Timber quality varies, landscape and other values are high and it rains alot. Despite these daunting realities, the North Coast Forest District headquartered in Prince Rupert harbours no shortage of initiative from large licencees to small niche seekers. The Ministry of Forests tries to act as a catalyst to create opportunities through timber sale strategies for large numbers of small operators including First Nations groups. The forest district stretches about 350 kilometres from Stewart in the north to Klemtu in the south. District operations manager Brian Wesley estimates operable areas occupy only six per cent of the land base and they are frequently the richest sites with high nontimber harvesting values. Logs have been commercially harvested in the district for about 80 years, despite its remoteness.

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Operations on BC's North Coast vary from Ridley Island Dry Land Sort (top, left) which produces shingles for the Vancouver market, to Blaine Dieter's reman operation that turns out everything from fine stock for canoes to yellow cedar paneling.

On Princess Royal Island, home to the famed white kermodei bear, old logging sites are occupied by magnificent naturally regenerated timber stands. Today the two largest licencees operating in the Timber Supply Area are Interfor (224,000 cubic metres/year) and West Fraser Timber (about 150,000 cubic metres/year). The small business program component in the district is for 149,000 cubic metres/year. Variations occur within the district but the averages for small business wood is 25 to 30 per cent pulp with 77 per cent in hemlock/ balsam, l5 per cent cedar and eight per cent spruce, says Shawn Hedges, the ministry's small business officer for the district. small_mill_operations_1.jpg (13975 bytes)The idea behind the program is to offer timber sales of varying size in different geographical locations near the scattered communities and to play the whole forest profile to produce a large array of active operations, says Hedges. Typically about 40,000 cubic metres is allocated in value-added opportunities, 15,000 cubic metres in non replaceable forest licences and the balance in market logger sales, usually between 10,000 cubic metres and 50,000 cubic metres. The ministry's small log salvage program is a recent initiative that's proving popular in the north coast district. There's a strong client base for salvaging timber that's down, damaged or dead, explains Marc Bosse, special tenures forester. Sales have been for as little as 5.3 cubic metres but about 300 cubic metres is more typical. People are developing markets for components for instruments such as guitar, cello and piano from cedar and spruce and salvaging cedar shakes and shingles. The sales improve utilization from old stands while creating high value products. Stumpage rates are generally low with the priorities being resource utilization and employment creation rather than generating revenue for the government. A diminishing number of beachcombers work the north coast producing up to 10,000 cubic metres/year primarily from floating and beached logs.

The Ministry of Forests is offering sales up to 1,000 cubic metres under the small scale log salvage program to challenge entrepreneurs to find uses for cedar killed several decades ago by industrial pollution from the Anyox metal smelter. Up to 400,000 cubic metres was affected in an 80kilometre swathe accessible only by air or water. Parts of the cedar remain salvageable for uses ranging from shakes and shingles to artistically carved doors. The products' value compared with the economics of accessing the fibre, removing and remanfacturing it are being investigated. The district's first Forest Woodlot Licence has been awarded in the small community of Oona River. Hopes are the 40hectare parcel can be harvested sustainably and integrated with a small milling operation. Ridley Island Dry Land Sort Inc. has been operating independently near Prince Rupert since 1994. Its partners, Des Shearing and Karen Martin, operate a versatile and flexible operation. And an important one in the local economy, sustaining about 20 jobs. The operation buys and sells logs, does custom sorting for clients, and includes a shingle plant, cedar mill and whole log chipper. The company plans to utilize wood from a recently awarded value-added timber sale. They also have plans to add breakdown equipment, resawing capability and a kiln to extract maximum valued products. Shearing echoes sentiments about the region's inherent problem with remoteness.

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In addition to shingle production, Ridley Island Dry Land Sort buys and sells logs, and does custom sorting for clients. The company has plans to add breakdown equipment, resawing capabilities and a kiln to extract maximum value products from their logs

Depending on the activity, the problems and costs associated with accessing fibre include barging fuel and supplies for camp setups and demanding road building terrain. Fibre can cost $50/cubic metre over and above stumpage. Persistent winter rains between November and February can bring operations to a standstill. Ridley Island's three year 22,000 cubic metre value-added timber sale licence is 72 kilometres away by sea. Marketing can be a problem whatever the fibre source. Highend logs contain valuable clears but the typical fibre basket contains larger volumes of lower grades of wood. At times, notes Shearing, they are better off to sell the big, high end log and buy other logs. "A lot of remanufacturing is required to get 0.9 metres to 2 metres red cedar clears," he says. They also have freight costs to consider. "In offshore or eastern markets with the port of Prince Rupert so handy we can be more competitive." That's another reason why the recovery of the Asian market is important to Shearing's operation.

The whole log chipper has proven to be a valuable addition to the operation's flexibility. It processes trim ends and other materials from regional operations to feed the nearby pulp mill. Ridley Island operates a two-machine shingle mill which cuts for the Vancouver market. "The market is volatile and the roofing industry seasonal," says Shearing, "but we have pretty good expectations although we're wholly dependent on securing fibre from the majors." The Canada/US softwood lumber export agreement and its quotas has complicated matters for operators like Shearing. The large companies have responded to the agreement's restrictions by juggling their fibre baskets and species utilization patterns. Shearing anticipates more small business program wood in the future to remain viable and move forward. "I always say we take baby steps forward," he says. But it's the direction that counts and that's something Blaine Dieter, another small operator, can appreciate. "You have to rely on so many things to make a living,"explains Dieter, who previously worked as a faller up and down the north coast.

He and his wife, Ila, support their family with a small mobile mill with reman options on Digby Island, near Prince Rupert. The hardware is supported by a fertile imagination for the potential of small scale, value-added wood product manufacturing and marketing. Dieter is another of the entrepreneurs to take advantage of the Ministry of Forests small log salvage program. He also gets wood from beachcombing, although that source is drying up. His diversified custom product lines are supported primarily through a word-of-mouth network. It ranges from fine stock for canoes and kayaks in up to six metre lengths to yellow cedar paneling. Utilization and adding value are the operation's watchwords. One customer wanted five centimetre cedar branches for a carving project. "You can extract a lot from each log," he says, regularly recovering 1x1 pieces 0.6 metres long. But, he concedes, getting a steady wood supply is a problem along with securing the right quality material at the right time for the job in hand. Dieter bought his mobile dimension mill new in 1995. "With a new machine, you get a couple of years head start on serious maintenance."

Salt ingrained in the wood eats sawmill parts. The mill's circular saw means less cant remanufacture and it maintains the accuracy of the cut through long lengths, he says. A wood finishing shop includes a portable planer and tilting arbor saw. An Ebec Lumber Dryers kiln runs along one wall of the mill building. It's augmented with an auxiliary fan for more uniform drying of pieces up to 7.3 metres long and it runs on electricity. "It's the only kiln on the north coast," he adds. Dieter believes if the resource is managed properly, there's a future for small scale innovative operations like his despite fibre access and quality issues. The family's front room window looks across misty Digby Cove to their shoreline beyond. "There's enough to keep me and my family going for generations with just what I can see from here," he says.


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