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The forest industry is going through some tough times now, but veteran loggers Wayne and Bill Lankinen of Thunder Bay remain hopeful the industry in northwestern Ontario has a future, provided wood cost issues are addressed.

By Tony Kryzanowski

According to a Minister’s Council on Forest Sector Competitiveness Report conducted by Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources a couple of years ago, Ontario had the second highest delivered wood costs in the world.                                   

Veteran Ontario logger Wayne Lankinen could likely provide the top 10 reasons why wood costs are so high, and the first eight would probably be totally beyond any logger’s control.                                   

Wayne Lankinen is a founding partner of Lankinen Bros Contracting with his younger brother, Bill. The company is based in South Gillies, southwest of Thunder Bay. If you cut a vein on either Wayne or Bill, they would probably bleed sawdust. The same is true of their four sons who are also involved in the family logging business.                                   

Wayne and Bill are in their 70s now and have cut back a bit. They’ve left the logging operations to the younger generation, while all they do is build roads in some of the most unforgiving Canadian Shield landscape in the country, where finding a gravel deposit is cause for celebration.                                   

Although he is also an accomplished wildlife photographer, Wayne says being part of a logging business still brings him a great deal of satisfaction. He began logging with his father in 1945, giving him 62 years experience. Brother Bill isn’t too far behind. Wayne is 76 and Bill is 70. Handling the logging business side are Bill’s sons, Gary and David, and Wayne’s sons, James and Robert, who about four years ago all became partners in the company.   

The owners of Lankinen Bros Contracting appreciate the performance of their older John Deere 753G feller buncher in a softwood and hardwood logging environment where the logs generally are under 20 inches in diameter.

“I have no desire to even think of retiring,” Wayne says. “When I was a kid first starting out in logging, I’d cut two cords a day in six hours.                                   

That was making better money than you’d make working in town. Now, unless you are making 100 to 120 cords a day, you’re not doing anything.”                                   

The Thunder Bay area has had its share of down swings and boom times in forestry. “At one point, the logging business was getting better all the time,” says Wayne. “The problem was that we couldn’t sell the poplar we were harvesting. The only place we could sell poplar in 1974 was to MacMillan Bloedel for veneer blocks. Then the first waferboard mill was built that year, and poplar started to move. Everything started to look really rosy.”                                   

However, given the number of recent mill closures in northwestern Ontario, many local loggers have packed it in. Given their business management method, there is little doubt that Lankinen Bros Contracting will still be operating when all the dust settles.                                   

The Lankinen family has been logging the area for over 85 years. Wayne and Bill’s grandfather, Daniel, immigrated to Canada from Finland in 1913 and settled shortly thereafter in Pearson, Ontario. Daniel Lankinen began harvesting jackpine, hewing them into railway ties. At that time, a lot of the manufactured lumber was used by homesteaders to build their homes and buildings. Poplar was commonly used because it was so plentiful. People even manufactured their own shingles.                                   

Daniel’s son, Jack, continued logging and cut pulpwood for paper companies. He also purchased his first sawmill in 1930. His sons, Wayne and Bill, formed the Lankinen Bros Contracting partnership, and in 1977, they made the switch to mechanized logging with the purchase of their first skidder. Now the fourth generation of the Lankinen family has taken over the logging and they are into a substantial amount of second cut of both softwood and hardwood surrounding Thunder Bay. “The boys are versatile in that any one of them can run all the equipment we have,” says Wayne.                                   

Lankinen Bros Contracting maintains consistent production because all six owners are able to step into any piece of equipment. Consistent flow from critical pieces of equipment such as the skidders is an important part of their successful logging operation.

Today the company operates a completely modern line of logging equipment, including a John Deere 753G feller buncher equipped with a continuous rotation Gilbert harvesting head, a Hyundai delimber, a John Deere 748 skidder, a Caterpillar 525 skidder, and a Hood slasher. Roadbuilding equipment includes a John Deere 270 excavator, as well as Caterpillar D7 and D8 dozers. They harvest spruce, pine and fir averaging 12 inches in diameter, as well as poplar in the 16- to 18-inch range. Softwood is slashed to 16-foot lengths and poplar is delivered tree-length. Recently, they’ve found a hog fuel market for the large amount of birch growing in the area. At present, they harvest about 242 hectares annually, which historically has yielded about 35,000 cubic metres of wood.                                   

In 1999, this area of Ontario suffered a massive blowdown from a wind storm that started in South Dakota. Today, about 30 per cent of their softwood harvest is still dry wood from dead trees as a result of the blowdown. Those are slashed into eight-foot lengths and shipped to Terrace Bay where they are chipped. As a consequence of the blowdown, the company’s annual cut has dropped to about 24,000 cubic metres annually. The hardwood is shipped to Bowater in Thunder Bay, while the softwood is shipped to Buchanan Lumber.                 

The two biggest challenges to a logging company’s bottom line right now, Wayne says, are fuel and environmental concerns. He says the Ontario government has been somewhat helpful recently by providing financial support for the cost of roadbuilding.                                   

“Our argument all this time was that we spent all this money on roadbuilding, but anyone can use the road and they don’t contribute anything,” Lankinen says. So the government’s recent program to assist with roadbuilding is appreciated. It has provided about $500,000 to build an access road where additional fibre can be harvested.                                   

In addition to the requirement to allow full public access on logging roads, what rubs salt in the wounds for long time loggers like Lankinen are the comments they sometimes get from environmentalists using the roads. They drive down the road to experience nature, and then when they come upon a cutblock, they criticize the work being done. Never do they thank the logger for building the road, which provided free access in the first place.                                   

“I’m a wildlife and nature photographer myself,” says Lankinen, “and I’ve sold many of my photographs to magazines for years. I’d like to go out there and not see a cut over, but I’m realistic. Someone has to do something to make money in this country—and if you don’t cut it down, it’s going to burn or die anyway.”                                   

Listening to Lankinen speak is like hearing the words of wisdom often imparted from a grandfather or uncle. It’s apparent that years of experience have helped to bring forth the truth on some matters that simply have become ridiculous in the life of the logger, and to a certain extent explains the high cost of wood. For example, Lankinen questions the need for third party certification of all Sustainable Forest Licence (SFL) areas, as mandated by the Ontario government.                                   

“Aren’t we already certified to be operating legally by the Ministry of Natural Resources?” he asks. He estimates that third party certification will cost the Thunder Bay SFL owners an additional $75,000 to $100,000. “At a time when they are telling us that we have to reduce wood costs, they are adding more costs.”                                   

He pointed out yet another example of environmental regulations gone amuck. When at one time an 18-inch culvert would have sufficed, now the culvert has to be about a six-foot pipe. “This is in an area where there is never, ever going to be more than a foot and a half of water at any given time. They’ve gotten ridiculous.” The problem, he says, is that environmental regulations are being applied the same way throughout the province, despite how ridiculous and costly they might be, to ensure that the same standard is applied equally.                 

The company is a member of the Thunder Bay Sustainable Forest License (SFL) area, which is managed by a company called Greenmantle Forest Inc. Its membership consists of both loggers and forest companies. The SFL system was the Ontario government’s adopted method for transferring more forest management from the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to the forest industry.                                   

Wayne Lankinen says negotiations for establishing ownership in the Thunder Bay SFL were extremely challenging, but in the end, loggers were able to maintain a controlling interest. Representing the loggers’ interest on the SFL management company is Superior North Loggers Inc, which consists of 36 logging companies working in the SFL. “I’ve been told that we are the only managed SFL in Ontario where loggers were able to negotiate the controlling interest,” says Lankinen.                                   

Thunder Bay is said by some to have a deeply entrenched unionized labour force. Wayne Lankinen is certain that the intractable attitude of unions related to labour costs is another reason why forest companies are finding it difficult to survive in that part of Ontario. Ultimately, the high cost of labour also impacts on what forest companies can afford to pay independent contractors like Lankinen Bros Contracting.                                   

After all this time, and all this said, Wayne is still confident that there is a future for loggers in the area—if everyone makes an effort to find ways to help forest companies in the Thunder Bay area survive and prosper.