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Standing the Test

Standing stem logging on the BC coast continues to develop, proving to be a viable harvesting option.

By Paul MacDonald

After a number of trials in the rugged geography- and high-value timber-of BC's West Coast, the "standing stem" harvesting method developed by a Vancouver Island heli-logging pilot and implemented by forestry giant Weyerhaeuser seems to have proved its stuff.

What Weyerhaeuser-formerly MacMillan Bloedel-admits was originally an unlikely logging method, developed by Port Alberni pilot Philip Jarman, has now evolved into yet another harvesting option for the company and other coastal forestry operators. Finding other ways of harvesting timber is clearly high on the priority list for Weyerhaeuser, which has stated that it is phasing out clearcuts.

With the standing stem system, cutters put their chainsaw almost all the way through a tree, but leave enough connecting wood in the centre of the tree to keep the tree standing. The tree is then "plucked" by helicopter, which essentially snaps the tree off once it is attached to a grapple.

Alternative harvesting systems are also getting a lot of interest in the industry as companies such as Home Depot and Ikea put the push on suppliers to manufacture lumber from sustainably managed forests. The most recent move came in March when Centex Homes, a major US homebuilder and lumber user, said it would give preference to certified wood products. Centex plans to eliminate wood originating from what it terms "endangered forests".

With new logging methods, there are usually the inevitable bugs to be worked out-and there have been some along the way for Weyerhaeuser-but the slightly unorthodox standing stem logging method appears to work well and is now being used by other companies on the BC coast.

Helicopter logging itself is not new, especially in BC where the system is well developed. But helicopter logging usually involves logging trees in a conventional manner.

"People thought this was an interesting concept, but no one really knew how to get there," says Don Cleaver, Weyerhaeuser standing stem project coordinator. "There were some pretty big hurdles, like getting a variance from the Workers' Compensation Board to do the work. There were questions about whether the helicopter might damage adjacent trees when it came in for the pickup and concerns about the trees coming off the stump clean.

"And there was a feeling that you can actually do it with one tree, but how can you do it with thousands of trees and make it productive ."

At this point, tweaking of the system seems to be called for, rather than large-scale changes, however. While the method certainly carries a high price tag, it brings certain unquestioned benefits such as zero ground disturbance and very little log breakage. There are additional savings because no logging road construction is required.

After trees have been topped and marked, the cutter cuts into the tree, but leaves connecting wood in the centre. Wedges also help to support the tree.

While the logging system was introduced back in 1998 harvesting yellow cedar, it has really earned its spurs since then, including in a larger trial in early 1999 on the steep banks of the Englishman River on Vancouver Island. The month-long trial saw Weyerhaeuser, in partnership with a local equipment company, take out 4,000 cubic metres of large Douglas fir that they normally would not have been able to harvest.

The process is fairly straightforward. The company makes full use of current technology, using GPS systems to map out blocks, helipads and even the locations of individual trees to be logged.

A tree to be harvested is identified and a climber goes up the tree, removing all the branches, topping the tree and marking the top of the tree with bright orange paint so it can be seen from the helicopter. Above and beyond the woods savvy they possess, these climbers also receive special training. They are not your average logger.

After trees have been topped and marked, there is one important thing the cutter on the ground does not do: cut the tree right through with a chainsaw. Instead, the tree is cut almost completely through, leaving enough connecting wood in the centre of the tree, supported by wedges, to keep the tree standing. Once the immediate area is cleared, the tree is "plucked" by the helicopter, which essentially snaps the tree off once it is attached to a grapple. This is tricky business since there must be enough wood to hold the tree in the 100 kilometre wash of the helicopter, but yet little enough that it can be relatively easily snapped off by the chopper.

The helicopter, equipped with a special grapple on a 150foot long line, grabs the top of the tree, snapping it off the stump in the process, and then carries the tree to the landing or roadside.

The grapple used in the trial last year was developed in partnership with a local Vancouver Island company, Select Air Logging of nearby Duncan. In the Englishman River trial, Select Air developed a heavy-duty grapple that could handle the large Douglas fir and also handled the logistics, including hiring out the topping and contracting the heli-logging, for Weyerhaeuser. A Campbell River, BC company-REM Contacting-provided experienced climbing crews to do the tree climbing and topping. Both of these companies now offer a complete standing stem harvesting package to coastal forest companies, as does another company, HeliTech. The latter firm is run by Ed Johnson, who oversaw the start of the standing stem harvesting method while working for Weyerhaeuser.

"We think it's positive that the technique is getting interest and there are a number of players doing it now," says Cleaver. "It helps to bring along research and development and engineering techniques in terms of layout and plotting and with the grapple equipment ."

Lindsay Gall of Select Air Logging recently completed a standing stem job for Canfor on northern Vancouver Island and was working for J S Jones in the Fraser Valley. He feels the method has good potential. "It will be in wide use as soon as we can get everybody on line with the methods of doing it ." He notes that Select Air's method has progressed to the point where it is more of a production process, with more mid-quality trees taken out, rather than just the absolute best trees. "We're getting more out of the setting and the average value of our stems is still quite high ."

The most recent demonstration of the system at Weyerhaeuser came in May on company-owned land near the Oyster River on northern Vancouver Island.

Weyerhaeuser's huge 230,000 hectare North Island Timberlands, of which the company-owned land is a small part, has literally millions of cubic metres of timber locked up because of environmental constraints due to steep slopes, riparian zones or other environmental considerations. The standing stem method works well with both steep slope and riparian zones. The company certainly selected a demanding piece of ground at Oyster River-it is steep slope, forms part of the watershed for a nearby community and there is a fish hatchery downstream.

"We want to see if it works and if it does, then sell the system to all the stakeholders," says divisional forester Ken Mackenzie.

"We want their input on the results we achieved in sensitive areas ." Those stakeholders range from interested local groups right through to the WCB, provincial Ministry of Forests and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. "We're hoping to turn this into a regular harvesting tool for our North Island operations ."

In the Oyster River trial, the operation included the division's full-time conventional heli-logging operation and its crew. Working with its partner, Canadian Air Crane, Weyerhaeuser currently harvests 350,000 cubic metres a year with conventional heli-logging using an E64 Sikorsky.

Conventional heli-logging means trees are felled and dropped to the forest floor. A helicopter then comes in and lowers a grapple to the ground, which then closes on the trees. They are then lifted and flown away.

The company formed a special committee, with a variety of in-house resources and expertise, specifically for the trial, which consisted of taking out 5,000 cubic metres of timber. That meant flying out 1,000 trees, one at a time.

The first and foremost goal of the trial was to prove that standing stem is a safe logging method, meaning they essentially shot for zero incidents throughout. "We have a very high standard of safety," says Mackenzie.

Second, they want to make some money. Since the trial is being done on private Weyerhaeuser land, they don't face provincial stumpage-the big stumbling block in terms of economics. The company is interested in using standing stem logging on Crown land, but regular stumpage rates would put it right out of the picture in economic terms because of the high costs of the operation.

"We'd like to determine what changes we have to make, and what changes the Ministry has to make, so this can be a viable harvesting system on Crown land," says Don Cleaver. As a follow-up to the trial, the company will be putting together a standing stem implementation plan for consideration by all parties. "It would outline what we have to do in the future to make this type of logging feasible on Crown land," says Mackenzie.

In an era of concern over clearcuts from lumber customers, and a local tourism industry that is increasingly vocal about the impact of clearcuts on the visual aspect of their business, standing stem represents a visually acceptable harvesting tool in the industry toolbox. "If you went by an area before, and then went by it after, you couldn't even tell we were there and took out some trees," says Cleaver.

Another advantage to the system is that it eliminates one of the most dangerous parts of the cutter's job-those seconds between when he has cut through the tree and when it hits the ground. Many lives have been lost in the woods when a tree "barber chairs" or splits above the stump and hits the cutter when it's going down. Since there is no longer a need for the tree to fall, the work is that much safer.

But this kind of logging, with its partial cutting, is still risky business. Weyerhaeuser had to apply for a variance from the BC Worker s' Compensation Board, with special WCB guidelines for the work site. The WCB wanted to make sure there would be no injuries from the helicopter down-wash, and that the cutters and climbers would have enough time to do their work properly and be in the clear.

The Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada (FERIC) was also hired to develop standards on how much "leavewood" to allow for a stem to remain standing. Before even cutting into the tree, cutters are required to bore the trees to make sure they are sound internally. Older trees, notably western red cedar, can have significant rot, meaning using the standing stem method is a no-go because of the inherent instability of the tree.

At this point, the amount of timber being harvested is very small, both in terms of Weyerhaeuser's annual harvest and the overall harvest on the BC coast.

"A very small percentage of the harvest on the BC coast is done with helicopters and what we are doing might represent one-half of a per cent of that. It's very high end," says Cleaver.

Cleaver admits not everyone has been won over to the innovative method, but he's hoping that field trails like the one at Oyster River will clearly illustrate it is workable.

"The problem is selling people on the method because of the high costs. There are up-front costs of developing a new system to get it to the point where it is more productive and you are able to achieve some economies of scale ."

While Cleaver is reluctant to talk about logging costs, the costs are high, but the value of the undamaged trees is also high. Depending on the operation, it could involve helicopter costs of anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 an hour. While this may sound high, they are able to move 20 stems an hour, and some of those trees are worth as much as $1,000.

Weyerhaeuser is looking to bring down costs to below $100 per cubic metre. Its real benefit could lie in high value timber, such as yellow cedar and logs suitable for telephone poles, which can command $200 per cubic metre. Part of the follow-up plan at Oyster River will involve determining whether it is economic to bring out lower value wood, as well. That, more than anything else, could determine just how widespread a logging method standing stem becomes in the future on the BC coast.

In the end, though, market forces from customers like Home Depot may be the deciding factor. The industry may be faced with a decision of not if they should implement this method on a broad basis, but when.

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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004