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July August 2004


Under urban pressure

While the wood for the Barrett sawmill in Nova Scotia may be close to the mill, it is too close: the company’s land—and forests—have come under pressure from urban development, and, more recently, damage from Hurricane Juan.

By Stephen Bornais

A contractor-owned Ponsse harvester at work in some of the timber damaged by Hurricane Juan on the land owned by the Barrett sawmill operation. Inset are (from left) Robin Barrett, logging contractor Vernard Lynch and David Barrett.

David Barrett has a problem, but it’s a problem many other sawmill owners would love to share, at least in part. Barrett is watching logging contractor Vernard Lynch steadily work his way through a stand of mature spruce and hemlock, cutting sawlogs for the Barrett mill barely 10 minutes away. That proximity to a wood source is a rare thing in Nova Scotia, and most of the country, where mills find themselves forced to truck raw wood in from forests hundreds of kilometres away.

But Barrett’s problem with harvesting this particular woodlot is that he hadn’t planned on harvesting it for a long time. Barrett and his father before him personally tended this stand, using its towering hemlock and red spruce as a source for special wood orders, including 12 x 12 timbers up to 24 feet long, a rare thing in most Nova Scotia woodlands. “You could walk in, cut it down, load it on the truck and have a large custom piece for Nova Scotia within 24 hours,” says son Robin Barrett. However, Hurricane Juan changed Barrett’s plans and those of many other landowners in the province.

A large woodlot owned by Barrett to the west of the sawmill is now bordered by a subdivision. The trees on this woodlot may never be harvested, however, since many of them are filled with nails—not from some eco-terrorist but from kids building tree forts in the woodlot.

It is just the latest challenge put before Barrett, who along with brothers Keith and Hugh, own and operate the family business just outside Lower Sackville, a bedroom community of Halifax. Barrett says prior to the 1970s, the mill was the main business. But the family couldn’t escape the growing trend back then that saw homebuilders seeking one-stop shopping for their needs. “People just wanted to deal with one company. We had no choice but to get into building supplies,” he says. Barrett Lumber is a member of TIM-BR Mart, a co-op group of building supply companies that have gotten together to purchase building supplies at a competitive price. All the businesses that belong to the group are independently run. By 1980, the company branched out again, this time adding a value-added product in the form of engineered roof trusses. “I would say that we’re either the first or second-largest roof truss manufacturer in Nova Scotia right now. It’s a great value-added product, but it’s highly competitive,” Barrett says.

The Barrett mill draws timber from 3,200 hectares the company owns in the immediate area. That proximity has always helped the mill compete against larger operators. But that closeness came with a price last October when Hurricane Juan swept across central Nova Scotia, cutting a swath of destruction 120 kilometres long and 40 kilometres wide. The Barrett operation didn’t escape. “Most of what we lost in Juan was within one or two miles of the mill,” Barrett says. He says one reason why the company was hit so hard by Juan, is that much of its timber was ready to cut. “There is a time to harvest it and if you don’t harvest it, Mother Nature will, either by fire, bugs or, as in this case, by hurricane. As a result, mature timber was very susceptible in this hurricane.”

The blowdown is going to complicate future supply planning, Barrett says, because the company is now harvesting timber that it had counted on forback-up for the next ten to 20 years. Barrett had crews in the affected areas two days after the storm had blown through. Anything that was still standing was left, but it quickly became apparent that the storm damage was even worse than first feared. “We found that the root system was so badly damaged that within a month the stuff we left standing blew down too,” Barrett says. After an entire winter’s work, Barrett estimates about 25 per cent of the downed wood has been recovered. In late April, after the weight restrictions were lifted on Nova Scotia roads, he added a second shift.

Barrett says it is important—for the entire province—that the Juan damage is cleaned up as thoroughly as possible to ensure the fibre doesn’t provide a welcoming home to more insect pests. Otherwise the bugs are going to be in the equivalent of a nursery. “They’ll get going nicely this summer, and then the following year they’ll fly out to other areas,” he says. The younger Barrett says despite the efforts, he still expects a spike in the population of the local bark beetle sometime in 2005. “The downed trees can’t pitch them out. From there, they will go into the healthy stands and those trees won’t be able to handle the large populations infesting them,” he says. But rampaging hurricanes are not the only, or even the biggest, threat to the future of the Barrett operations. With a population of 350,000 people, Halifax has sprawled from its city core over the last 20 years, extending fingers of development into formerly rural areas. The pressure created by the city’s sprawl comes out in the oddest way.

Barrett owns a large woodlot to the west of his mill that is now bordered by a subdivision. The trees on the Barrett woodlot may never be harvested, however, since many of them are filled with nails. But they’re not from some eco-terrorist bent on halting logging. Instead, they’re from a far more benign, but equally destructive, source. They’re from neighbourhood kids building camps in the woodlot. “One fort gets built, then gets torn down. Another group of boys goes in and builds on top of that one,” Barrett says.

With continuing development pressures, some recently harvested woodlots have likely seen their last crop of trees, Barrett says. “The next thing that goes on that land will be houses,” he says. “We’re forced to do it, because of economics. We’re a rural industry in an urban environment.” As the city has grown, the Barrett lands have become more popular with urbanites seeking a little wilderness experience. But that popularity created major difficulties. The first problem to crop up was one that has bedeviled rural Nova Scotia for years: illegal dumping. “You finish making a nice road into the woods and the next day you go in and somebody has dumped some garbage or abandoned an old car,” Barrett says.

The situation was brought to a head, Barrett says, when local newspaperslisted the location of a sexual assault as having been on one of Barrett’s roads. “Well that made me angry, and I gated all my roads,” he says. Such a policy ran counter to the unstated rule of Nova Scotian landownership, which allows virtual open use to anyone who doesn’t abuse the privilege. So in 1978 Barrett developed a family forest stewardship agreement that would reward those who respected the land. He gives keys to those deemed worthy. More than 1,000 are now in circulation and the program has created a huge force of people protective of the land. To get the keys, recipients have to show that they care about more than just themselves. “My policy is that if you’re not responsible enough to give a donation to the community, you’re not responsible enough to use those lands,” he says.

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Barrett mill may be small, but it’s efficient

There is plenty of history at the Barrett lumber mill outside of Halifax, but the challenge for its owners now is to ensure its future. In a world of giants, the Barrett mill and its annual production of five million board feet a year is tiny. Co-owner David Barrett, who runs the company along with his two brothers, acknowledges the mill is small, even by Nova Scotian standards. “We’re a toy, but it’s family owned and we run it efficiently,” he says. “The customer has always been our boss.” To compete with the big mills—with their deeper pockets and economies of scale—Barrett has moved to make both the mill more efficient and the entire operation more diversified. In doing so, he would seem to have history on his side.

The first mill on the site opened in 1830. By 1905 it was one of the most modern mills in Nova Scotia, powered by a water turbine fed from a series of dammed lakes. Harold Barrett, David’s father, took over the mill in 1926 as a sideline to his trucking business. In 1961 there was a fire and in rebuilding the mill, the Barretts switched it over to electricity. In 1995, the mill was modernized, with most of the upgrades done by co-owner Hugh Barrett and millwright Mark Matthews. The exception was the installation of a six-inch top arbour edger manufactured by Valley Machine Works Ltd.

At the same time, other equipment was installed that eliminated two positions, canterman and tail sawyer. With upgrades, daily production was boosted from 18,000 to 20,000 board feet to the current 30,000 to 35,000 board feet. Although Barrett also added a computerized tally machine, much of the older equipment—including a 35 year-old Carthage chipper and a Forano debarker—remains. “With a mill our size, you don’t have enough throughput to completely computerize,” he says. One item the Barretts did not add was an optimizer, standard equipment at larger mills. Here, the operator makes that decision on his own.

Although the modernization has helped make the mill more efficient, Barrett says external forces really drove the upgrade decisions. In the early 1990s in Nova Scotia, sawlog prices rose dramatically. While the company was still obtaining much of its raw supply from its own lands, the logs it was buying became increasingly more expensive. “We had to modernize in order to compete in the marketplace,” Barrett says. When in full operation, the Barrett mill has 70 employees, a large workforce for a mill producing about five million board feet per year. The mill is run from mid-April to early December.

Last year, Barrett says he would have preferred to have halted operation in mid-November due to low lumber prices, but instead stayed open in order to cut the wood that was pouring in off their own lands from Hurricane Juan. Although the mill now only represents 25 per cent of the company’s profits, Barrett says it remains a focus of attention, especially when it comes to controlling cost. One way to do that is to have all equipment repairs done on site. “It’s the only way a mill our size can stay viable,” he says.


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