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With a track record of responsible forest practices, Ontario sawmiller McRae Lumber operates comfortably on the doorstep of Ontario's best known provincial park

By Paul MacDonald

The turn off from Highway 60 to the McRae Lumber mill in Whitney, Ontario illustrates the current multiuse realities of the forest in this part of the province: as one of the McRae logging trucks returns from Algonquin Park fully loaded and turns on to the mill road, a Volvo station wagon with a canoe on top passes the truck, headed in to Ontario's best known provincial park. But this scene is nothing new to brothers John and Robert McRae, the fourth generation of the McRae family to operate a sawmill in this area in north central Ontario. "The existence of multiuse in the forest is very much a part of this region," explains John. "There are still conflicts and controversies from time to time, but the park is managed in a way by the Algonquin Forest Authority (AFA) so there is effort made to minimize the conflicts. "The forestry practiced in the park is probably as good as you are going to get in terms of how the industry gets along with other users and the accommodations that have to take place. With so many stakeholders, it's certainly a constant management challenge for the AFA, juggling the demands and priorities." Algonquin Park is the source of 70 per cent of this midsized mill's mixed species timber, though it comes from select areas of the park.

Much of the land base in the park is divided into zones, with some zones completely off limits to logging or any commercial activity, and other areas multiuse, with logging and recreational users-believe it or not-coexisting. "Philosophically, there are still many people who are opposed to active forest activities in a provincial park," says John. "But the management systems have evolved into what I would call relatively 'soft' forestry, with partial and selective logging versus what you might call 'hard' forestry, such as clear cutting, in order to accommodate other interests." Certainly helping this out is McRae Lumber's reputation for responsible forest practices and its long-term outlook. Some of the areas they are harvesting this year, for example, they are revisiting for the fourth time in the company's 100plus year history. "We have a history of coexistence with other forest users and that has worked well for us," says John.

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McRae Lumber has successfully faced the challenge of producing lumber from less than ideal sawlogs. Only 25 per cent of the average tree length will end up as lumber, with the remaining 75 per cent residue in the form of chips, sawdust and bark. The company does some of its own log hauling, depending on where they are operating, and may have two to four logging trucks on the go at any one point.

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With the clearcut common in northwestern Ontario and other parts of the country, it might be 80 to 100 years before another forest is ready to harvest. But McRae often revisits an area it has selectively logged in as little as 20 years. The long-term perspective of the McRae family is certainly coming in handy these days as the lumber mill faces some real challenges in sawlog supply. "There is a tremendous amount of fibre growing in this area, but we're not at the stage in the forest management cycle where there is a large number of sawlogs," explains John. "We are living with the consequences of how harvesting was done in the past." The past stretches back into the previous century when the area was logged by lumberman who came looking for straight and true white pine which, using river drives as the main means of transportation, was eventually exported to Europe as squared timber.

These pioneers were followed by settlers, communities and sawmills. And as the white pine resource became depleted, other species became of more interest through sheer necessity. Due to a shortage of markets for pulpwood in the region-the nearest pulp mill is more than 100 miles away-the emphasis until the 1970s was in taking the higher value timber out of the forests, with the lower value pulpwood left behind. "Over the past 25 years, though, under AFA management, we have been going through the forest and removing the less desirable species and lower quality trees and leaving many of the better trees behind," says John. The payback in this, in terms of a better fibre base, lies down the road. "We have been heavily investing in the future by doing this." A similar forest management plan is being followed on the Crown land outside the park where the mill sources the remainder of its wood. But over that period of time, McRae Lumber and other producers in this area have been faced with making the transition from a sawlog economy to a broader fibre economy. The plan is to return to more sawlog-focused production as the forest permits. When John and Robert joined the business in the 1970s, they could see this fibre-based economy coming. "You could see at that time that we were very quickly moving in that direction and you really had to make the choice of starting to adapt or to exiting the business.

"We've spent a good part of the last 25 years changing our operations to come to terms with the changing fibre base. Generally, the problem here has been the quality of the fibre. The amount of high quality, high demand wood has been very small relative to the amount of wood we are handling. Hopefully, that will change in the future as we get access to the better wood." Adapt they did, but that has meant taking a lot of wood in, and generating a relatively small amount of lumber and, as John terms it, "a tremendous amount of chips". Only 25 per cent of the average tree length will end up as lumber, with the remaining 75 per cent being residue-chips, sawdust and bark. The region still lacks adequate pulp mill capacity, meaning that chip customers are still some distance from the mill. Due to the policy of working through the low quality trees, and the resulting low value, the mill has to look long and hard before it can justify hauling wood from any further than 30 or 40 miles away. The typical log input for the mill, from 100,000 to 120,000 cubic metres a year, consists of 60 per cent maple, beech and white and yel low birch, 20 per cent aspen, with spruce, jackpine and hemlock making up the remaining 20 per cent. "It varies quite a bit because the species distribution is not even. It can vary quite a bit from area to area," explains John. Out in the woods, much of the timber is supplied by contractors who are working under the Algonquin Forest Authority, although McRae also operates a contract logging operation in the park on a third party basis. Since the principal harvesting method is selective logging, the operations are manual felling and cable skidding to landings. Outside the park, McRae has one primary contractor, Stanley Cutchkoski, who works with small machines, such as Timberjack 230 and 240 skidders, in order to better protect the residual stands. "We make a strong conscious effort to protect the residual stands," says John. "That's really our investment in the future. It would make little sense to go for selective logging and cause damage to the residuals."

The McRaes manage the road building, loading and hauling themselves in these operations. Depending on where they are operating, they may have two to four logging trucks on the go. John McRae notes that tree length logging is a relative newcomer to the area. "If you go back 20 years, very few people were doing tree length logging. In an effort to keep our footprint in the forest soft, we've moved to tree length because it allows you to minimize road and landing structures in the forest. It also improves the utilization of the lower quality wood by keeping costs in line so we can get fibre to the mill and processed reasonably. You have to consider what you are investing and what you are able to get out of the wood ." The tree length wood hauled to the mill varies greatly in size. They have to deal with the entire spectrum of age distribution in the forest-they don't have the luxury of, say, a softwood mill that is working with an evenaged forest. Some of the trees have a diameter of up to 36 inches and generate some decent lumber, while other trees are smaller, going down to a four inch top, with little to offer in terms of producing lumber. "What we produce is driven by one factor," says John, "and that factor is supply.

We can only produce from what's there in the stems to start with. The mill has to adapt to that. But we try to recover as much quality as possible ." On the mill side, John says they carry out ongoing upgrades-"we always seem to be doing something"-to keep ahead of the curve. But there have been no major upgrades of late. It has two operations: a custom modified twin circular mill, fed by an overhead carriage, utilizes thin kerf technology to handle the high proportion of low quality wood: and a band mill to handle the lower proportion of higher quality wood that is the sawlog portion of the tree. The circular mill operation produces industrial dimension lumber for blocking, crating and pallets, while the band does the high value production, such as high-grade lumber for furniture and flooring, plus industrial and commercial lumber. "We try to merchandise the tree lengths for the highest value. If there is a veneer piece or sawlog piece in it, we'll cut it out. Anything beyond that goes directly into bolt wood or chips. "We haven't been able to utilize technology as much as a pure softwood or hardwood operation because we are neither," says John. "We are predominantly a hardwood mill, but our operations have to be very flexible because of the multiplicity of species and the varying quality of the wood."

Doing yeoman work out in the yard for the operation are a Cat 325 and Cat 966 wheel loader, assisted by three Cat 950 units. While McRae Lumber is doing what it can with what it has in terms of added value-doing precutting for pallets or blocking material for the steel industry- John says they would like to do more. But that will be limited by the forest resource, even in the future. "We're always going to be working with a fair amount of low quality fibre, even as we get into better wood. Even in a good stand, only 40 or 50 per cent of it will be sawlog material." And, in an era when mega takeovers seem to be sweeping the forest industry, John McRae remains confident that there is still a place among the industry giants for nimble and flexible sawmillers like McRae Lumber. "Part of this consolidation trend is being driven by specialization. As far as how that is going to be translated in the business that we are in, it's tough to say what's going to happen. "But I think businesses such as ours are going to continue because we serve niche markets. The bigger companies are not interested in the small market niches, or at least not for very long. Some of them are coming back into it now, but a lot of them have large management structures that don't suit the hands-on management that an operation like ours requires." John McRae also believes that the successful multiple use approach in Algonquin Park and other areas of the province will continue. It will be subject to change, however. "In a province like Ontario, which is heavily populated, there are always going to be demands on the land base that are going to be evolving and changing." He adds that there is hope that the Living Legacy program introduced last year by the Ontario government, with its firm set asides, will hold into the future. "But I think we are always going to be revisiting many of the issues because the population continues to grow in the province. And in the end, it's public land and the public's wishes are eventually going to be heard if they change."

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This page last modified on Monday, November 03, 2003