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Taking on the Challenge

Logger Dave McRae takes on the challenge of harvesting in sensitive sites on the BC coast.

By Rick Crosby

On ice covered Gates Lake, about 200 kilometres north of Vancouver, two coyotes are feeding on the carcass of a deer that fell through the ice this past winter. An eagle is nearby.

Considering the tough times the forest industry has been through in the last few years, industry players may have at times felt like the coyotes, the eagle or, in the case of the mills that were supplying the Japanese market when it collapsed, perhaps the deer. "The forest industry is extremely competitive," says Dave McRae, walking through two feet of snow on a portion of a 40hectare timber sale at nearby Phelix Creek, about a kilometre from Birkenhead Provincial Park.

Dave McRae (at far right in the top left photo) consults with Ministry of Forest officials on the logging prescription for the Phelix Creek site north of Pemberton, BC. McRae's equipment lineup includes a Timbco 445B feller buncher and Timberjack 460 grapple skidder.

McRae, the owner of Triack Resources Ltd, has been working diligently with BC Forest Service officials to access an environmentally sensitive portion of the 40 hectare site where he is selectively harvesting lodge-pole pine infested with mountain pine beetle and a component of Douglas fir. "The economic downturn in the forest sector has not allowed for a profit margin. In order to pay the bills and just survive, you've done well if you can break even at the end of the year ."

There were four or five bidders on the Phelix Creek timber sale. Most of them were locals from the Squamish and Pemberton areas. The bids were as good as the bidding companies' sales or marketing outlet for the fibre that's in the block. "We had an outlet for that fibre which made it very easy for me to bid," McRae says.

Surviving the last couple of years has meant working closely with the Forest Service and parks personnel, says McRae. He harvested timber adjacent to power lines, logged a small block near Squamish and completed some selective logging in the Haylmore Creek area north of Pemberton. Most recently, he was doing understorey work, thinning camp sites in Alice Lake Provincial Park near Squamish.

"We looked at the requirements for the park with safety in mind in regards to snags and dead and dying understorey," McRae explains. "We also did crop tree retention and screening small residual cedars and conifers ."

At first, McRae had some misgivings about the way the parks branch had laid out the understorey job and told them he wasn't interested. "I said if you do it correctly with long term objectives in mind, then I'll do it with you," he recounts. "We did it that way and it came out very well ."

Phelix Creek is an area where people have said you're not supposed to be able to log. Parts of the block are a spotted owl reserve and the long term viability of the bio-diversity of the site must be taken into account.

McRae believes the environment is of greatest importance. "Basically if the spotted owl ceases to exist, then our forest resource might cease to exist along with it," he says, noting the variety of wildlife in this particular harvest area.

It might be easy to doubt his conviction, but Jim Gilliam, a silviculturist with the Small Business Program in Squamish, says McRae is progressive. "He's willing to work with both the Ministry of Forests and the Ministry of Environment to ensure the best job gets done," Gilliam says.

McRae says partial cutting and non-clearcut silviculture systems are the way the world is moving, even though a lot of times second growth management is not a big money maker for loggers.

"Lets face it," Gilliam says. "If you had a choice, you'd be in nice virgin Douglas fir. But we've listened to him and he's basically said let's get on with it and do the best we can ."

But logging with a focus on the environment and bio-diversity is labour intensive from a management perspective. The machine-based component is also intensive, so the production ratio for the types of machines used is lower than it would be if the area were clearcut. Two years ago when McRae was logging second growth fir in the Mamquam Valley near Squamish, he also ran into skepticism from people who said it couldn't be done. But he looked at the harvesting requirements of the Forest Service-intertree spacing, tree marking and road layout design-and felt that with some minor changes, he could make that job happen. He believes the same process applies in Phelix Creek.

"The harvesting at Phelix Creek is 50 per cent ground-based and 50 per cent high lead with an average residual stem component of 80 stems per hectare," he says. "Interacting with the Forest Service, we addressed those harvesting requirements and methods. They have worked diligently with us, making sure the end result is keeping with the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks and my ability to limit site degradation and still harvest the block ."

McRae has logged in some tough and demanding areas with restrictions including heavy fines for scarring trees, establishing corridors for wild trees and safeguarding dangerous trees with rotten tops before starting work. In Phelix Creek, the issues are snag components and adjacency requirements for "leave areas ." But unlike other sites, the soil in Phelix Creek is a gravelly talus type of material and the 2.4 kilometres of road building was easy. Road building started during the first part of December and Triack Resources Ltd was moving logs in late January and early February. The only problem McRae foresees in Phelix Creek is on the high lead portion.

"The inter-tree spacing is extremely tight," he continues. "We have some downhill yarding to do and we're going to run into a small problem with scarring on harvesting down slope ."

Within the 40hectare site, 27.7 hectares is to be harvested. The balance are leave areas. A Timbco 445B feller buncher and Timberjack 460 grapple skidder were used to harvest half the volume. The other half of the volume involved using a Washington 78SL skyline with a drop line carriage.

"The setup for the ground base is very simple," McRae says. "There's 100 per cent mechanization with very little to no setup time required. The high lead portion encompasses about three days setup time ."

Fifty percent of the volume of wood being harvested is bug kill lodgepole pine. The other 50 per cent of the harvest volume is Douglas fir.

"It's a fairly well established stand," McRae continues. "I would say the average size of the wood is between 18 and 22 centimetres at the butt. This block has 13,640 cubic metres on cruise and I believe the harvest volume will be around 12,000 metres ."

The small crew-three or four people who are on the site all the time-averages 80 to 120 pieces per load. Before road restrictions were put on at the end of February, eleven or twelve loads were being put out per day. All the wood is being processed at McRae's dryland sort in Squamish and most of it is milled at Coastland Wood Industries Ltd on Vancouver Island. The end result is truss-joists for the housing market.

McRae is a firm believer in environmentally sensitive logging. "My philosophy is that with a good working relationship with the Forest Service and a good crew, it's a lot easier to compete and make money in these selective logging scenarios than it would be to compete head to head with the clear cut specialists ."

Even so, he concedes there hasn't been any real money made. But as the forest sector becomes more economically sound, he anticipates some profit within the next two or three years.

The key to success is a good crew: the loader operator who will get off his machine to help with the guy lines-this kind of cooperation is crucial in sensitive areas. "It's extremely important because production isn't necessarily the number one objective," McRae emphasizes. "The objective is to sustain and represent the silviculture prescription to its intent ."

This means avoiding tree scarring and site degradation in terms of skid trails and where the feller bunchers should and should not work and considering the logistics of how the corridors are laid out for skylining.

McRae has his own fallers, equipment and dry land sort but, in order to log successfully, the ability to market 100 per cent of his product is essential. "If you have to rely on someone or another contractor to process your fibre to meet market requirements, you run the risk of things not being done the way you want them done and in the time frame that you need them done," he says. "So it's very important that you run the full phase of your own logging production ."

But there's a tremendous amount of competition in the Squamish region. Running a hands-on operation is important. "Without being there daily, you couldn't make those judgment calls accurately and the economics and the requirements of the environment would suffer at some time," McRae says.

With meeting the many conditions for logging in environmentally sensitive areas there is no free lunch. In the Mamquam Valley, close proximity to Squamish did help to keep trucking costs down but the small wood component and the terrain drove costs up. The positive element for Phelix Creek is the ground-base portion where the feller buncher and grapple skidder are very efficient. The detriment is trucking costs, which are extremely high.

This past winter, Triack Resources was selectively logging alder from the Brohm Ridge demonstration forest close to Squamish. This is where the company's past work logging understorey in a park paid off. "The Brohm demo forest was 10 hectares of harvest of which we had no less than 12 separate prescriptions, making it a very diverse harvest with numerous different silviculture requirements," McRae says. "The agenda is that we can show the public all the different harvesting and 'leave' requirements that we could possibly have ."

Brohm Ridge was a four week project. Towards the end of March, machinery moved back to Phelix Creek where the crew worked for another couple of months. The ability to make a living at something he likes doing keeps McRae going. But it's the potential upside he can see in the long-term that motivates him. Rather than the highs and lows of years past, he feels the infrastructure is all in place and although there may not be a huge rebound in the forest sector, the industry will stabilize.

"I think the management portfolio that a lot of the major companies and the Forest Service is coming up with is becoming more sustainable," he says. Rather than sitting pat and waiting for changes to occur, he's looking for ways to improve how they do things with his operation. "How do we do it so that we all get something out of it?" he continually asks. "How can we do it better?"

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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004