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An alternative to burning

TDB Consultants has proposed a system of harvesting BC’s beetle-infected timber—wood that would normally be burned—using mini-skidders.

By Jim Stirling


The red foliage shows trees that have been attacked by the mountain pine beetle in the BC Interior. It has been described as an epidemic, with the beetles having infested an estimated 108 million cubic metres of standing timber.

TDB Consultants want the British Columbia Forest Service to put out for bid a direct sale on around 5,000 trees at the front line of the province’s out-of-control mountain pine beetle epidemic. Being awarded such a sale would allow the company to prove definitively that its small-scale sanitation treatment system using a mini-skidder is a viable and common sense alternative to straight fall and burn practices. TDB’s system targets only specifically infected trees (and stumps)—like fall and burn—without collateral damage and on the outer fringes of the infestation where it is most effective.

The targets of TDB Consultants’ harvesting system are specifically infested trees on the outer fringes of the mountain pine beetle infestation.

But where economic and practical, the system will also extract stems and make them available for sale. TDB claims that instead of paying to have thousands of trees burned in the region, its niche harvesting techniques are revenue neutral to the forest service in most cases, create employment and a return to the Crown through stumpage payments. TDB plans to cover its risk assessment by selling the fibre it salvages. “If we can put people to work and get a bigger bang for the buck, why not try?” asks Bert Berry, field operations supervisor for TDB, which is based in Prince George, BC. But Berry and others at TDB have been asking that type of question for more than 15 months and counting.

Answers have been elusive, they report. Berry surmises from conversations with ministry district managers that the forest service’s bureaucracy is the primary reason. TDB’s proposed method is new: it’s not in the books. The government-appointed beetle boss, Bob Clarke, has listened to TDB but has yet to respond, reports Doug World, TDB’s senior forester. (Clarke was out of town and unavailable when contacted for this story.) “In the meantime, we’ve put hundreds and hundreds of man-hours into this thing and thousands of dollars. Our program is basically dead in the water right now without wood,” adds Berry. It started off with great promise.

The principals at TDB, a well-established forestry services company, envisioned a role for small skidder/forwarders as a site-specific weapon in the beetle wars. They weren’t trying to re-invent the wheel or supplant conventional techniques. On the contrary, TDB views the system as complementary, working hand in glove with other salvage methods and capable of adding some useful flexibility. It could feed a central landing, for example, and work with conventional harvesting and fall and burn systems.

The company has a vested interest, having acquired the regional dealership for Berfor, the Quebec-based manufacturer of the Forcat 2000 small skidder forwarder, a machine well-proven in eastern Canada. But TDB points out quads—all terrain vehicles—and even snowmobiles can be supplemented to do similar work with comparatively low capital outlay. TDB has used the Forcat equipped with a skidding arch to remove stems up to 24 inches in diameter. TDB’s system has undergone successful studies, including field trials with Canfor, which has extensive operations in the region, and a pilot project with the City of Prince George. In the latter case, the city is concerned about the beetle infecting pine in parks and green spaces and spreading from there.

It wants infected stems removed as a control method, with minimum disturbance to surrounding stems or the aesthetics of the parks. The system has worked well. TDB removed more than 14 truckloads of infected wood from city-owned property in the first six months of 2002 and continues a good working relationship with the city. The Forcat is four feet wide which makes access to infested stems simple. Larger equipment has to take out often perfectly good wood under fall and burn contracts just to access the work area. The diminutive skidder leaves only a 2.3 psi footprint. World says the TDB small scale sanitation treatment system has the versatility to probe a given area, determine what combinations of treatments are warranted and execute them straight away.

Often, with the pace of the epidemic’s spread, patches of unmarked green attack stems are observed by fall and burn crews, but can’t be treated because of prescription and budget constraints. Consequently, brood trees are left to further exacerbate the next season’s flight. “If we do it right, we can treat an awful lot more trees with our method,” he adds. TDB believes the employment potential angle is considerable with its system, especially when the ripple effect is factored in. The system can be used year round, says Berry, although there are concerns about how the small skidder would handle deep snow.

He calculates a four-man crew, each with a daily wage of $180, harvesting 20,000 cubic metres/year would inject about $650,000 into a community in direct wages alone. He notes the longer beetle infested wood remains standing, the less value it has. TDB’s system is like every other and comes with drawbacks. The right application is required for the optimum benefits. The small skidder is not particularly suited to long skids (more than 250 metres) with low volumes or terrain with severe adverse grades. Per cubic metre labour costs are higher because wood not only has to be felled but limbed, topped and bucked in the stand.

Conditions may require bucking to shorter lengths, which can compromise loading. Berry has compiled a hypothetical cost comparison between fall and burn and TDB’s system. It’s based on a 2,500-tree contract with each stem averaging 0.4 cubic metres, producing 1,000 cubic metres. An average fall and burn price of $40 times 2,500 trees equals $100,000 “up in smoke with zero return to the province”, he says. Skidding and salvaging the same stems and applying a $5 per cubic metre stumpage means $5,000 is paid for the wood. The net gain right there to the province is $105,000, money that could be used to fall and burn stems that are uneconomical to extract, Berry says.

Then there is revenue at the current price of delivering 1,000 cubic metres of wood to a sawmill—$53 a cubic metre at the time of Berry’s example. Criticisms that TDB’s proposals smack of subsidized logging or are unproven frustrate the company. It doesn’t buy for a second the subsidized logging charge and maintains the system has been proven in trials on public and private lands. There’s an irony on that score. The issue was addressed in a recommendation in the R & S Rogers Consulting Inc report, commissioned by the Ministry of Forests and providing the strategic framework for action in the beetle epidemic emergency.

The recommendation urged the ministry to “... employ both proven and new innovation best practices on a consistent basis throughout the west central region to reduce planning and permit approval timelines”. TDB wishes the ministry would take that recommendation to heart, along with the report’s broad-based spirit of “Let’s get on with it!”


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