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Forest Management

Developing The Future

The First Nations-owned Pic River Development Corporation in Ontario sees its future in forestry and is working closely with logging contractors to develop that future.

By Dave Lammers 

First Nations band members in Pic River, Ontario have been keenly aware of the forest industry ever since log drives jammed the river many years ago—a practice which in fact cut off access to the lake the northern Ontario community relied upon for its fish. However, for the last five years logging has provided the First Nations group with a booming economy and led to new opportunities including ecotourism and high tech industries.

Terry Nuttall, with his Timberjack 608B machine, has a contract with the Pic River Development Corporation, with wood going to the Buchanan Forest Products mill in Dubreauville. The First Nations-owned Pic River Development Corporation now manages 230,000 square kilometres of forest.

Today, the Pic River First Nations band is known for its entrepreneurial spirit, including the development of two hydro stations, a cable television business and a computer company—soon to be expanded into an Internet service provider. But band leaders say logging remains vital to the community of 300, located on the north shore of Lake Superior, approximately 400 kilometres east of Thunder Bay.

The Pic River Development Corporation has four contractors harvesting the corporation’s Sustainable Forest Licence (SFL) in exchange for employment opportunities for people living in the community. The corporation has also applied to have its licence expanded and is looking at acquiring its own logging equipment, and/or allowing operators in the community to go into the contracting business.

“Logging is the cornerstone to the growth of our development corporation,” says economic development officer Byron LeClair. “And all the other activities—no matter what industry we involve ourselves in—everything comes from logging. The revenues that are created from logging allow us to do other things.” 

One of the more recent contractors to enter into a partnership with Pic River has been Sturgeon Timber Ltd, which operates six chippers east of Thunder Bay, based out of the small community of Dorion. This past December, Sturgeon Timber hired a member of the Pic River band to train as a chipper operator, as part of the Aboriginal Employment and Training Services program based out of Thunder Bay.

Since early last summer, Sturgeon Timber has devoted two chipper crews to Pic River, operating north of White River as well as near Terrace Bay. The company operates five Peterson Pacific chippers, as well as a Nicholson chipper in the yard at Dorion—processing a total of 24 loads a day and employing up to 100 in its operations. Owner John Harris says Sturgeon Timber plans to expand its partnership with Pic River in the future. “We’ve got plans of definitely staying with them and staying in the long term,” Harris says.

LeClair notes such agreements are key to Pic River’s success in logging which, he adds, didn’t happen overnight. The Pic River Development Corporation was formed in 1983 as a non-profit organization with the goal of providing band members with jobs in forestry. In its first year, the corporation had a third party contract to cut 7,500 cords on the north shore of Lake Superior. “We lost our shirt but learned some lessons,” LeClair says.

The organization continued to struggle for 10 years, with small volumes contracted out to cut and skid crews. By contrast, the corporation now manages a total of 230,000 square kilometres of fibre in the Pic River Ojibwa Forest, as well as the White River and Black River Forests.

Pic River has contracts with Terry Nuttall of Nu-Ax Timber Ltd who runs a processing operation—with wood going to Buchanan Forest Products’ sawmill in Dubreuilville. Henry Poulin & Sons also harvests wood for Dubreuilville and Kurt Klinge of Black Sturgeon Enterprises has a contract with the corporation to supply wood to Weyerhaeuser’s OSB mill near Wawa. Sturgeon Timber sends its chips to the Kimberly Clark mill in Terrace Bay.

“It’s taken some time to get where we are today,” LeClair says. “And so much of our company’s fortune is based upon the working relationship we’ve established with our customers.”

Pic River forester Glenn McGinn adds the signing of a Sustainable Forest Licence agreement on the Pic River Ojibway Forest was a critical step for the corporation—making Pic River an official SFL partner. The corporation has employed close to 20 members of the local community with logging contractors. It hopes to add to those numbers through an application for a licencing agreement on the Big Pic River Forest, located further east in the Manitouwadge area.

The corporation is also exploring what McGinn describes as “deeper financial agreements” with various partners that would see either the corporation or individual band members purchase equipment and set up their own logging businesses. “For us, it’s the next logical step—to get into ownership,” McGinn says. The capital necessary to purchase equipment has prohibited many from starting out on their own, he says.

Ironically, another obstacle for the corporation in creating logging jobs for members has been a glut of other employment opportunities, including at the Tembec-owned Marathon pulp mill, the Hemlo gold mine and Pukaskwa National Park which borders the Pic River First Nation. Band members simply haven’t been interested in going into debt as logging contractors, McGinn says. “If those other opportunities weren’t around, they’d probably be more inclined to try logging.” He adds that the corporation continues to encourage contractors to hire people from the community whenever possible, adding one of the advantages is that band members live close to the areas where they are logging.

As an SFL partner on the Pic River Ojibwa Forest, they also have first right of refusal for silvicultural work and last year embarked on a six-week plant of 400,000 trees, with a crew of 14. There are plans to renew that contract with Buchanan Lumber, including some site preparation work. “There’s one parcel of land we harvested that we just site prepped and we’ll also plant it,” McGinn says. “So we’ve done the whole business on one block.”

In addition, they also have a contract with the Ministry of Natural Resources fighting forest fires. Five crews of four from the community respond on 24-hour notice and are flown out of Thunder Bay or to the east from Timmins, depending on the location of the fire. “We’re in a pretty good location to respond either east or west,” McGinn notes. “Two years ago was extremely successful—there were a lot of fires, which I don’t like to see, but our employees did quite well. We proved ourselves, so hopefully we’ll be successful and get at least 10 fire crews the next go-around.” McGinn adds that by expanding its fire fighting contract, the corporation hopes to create employment opportunities for other aboriginal communities in the area.

Other ventures include a partnership with Northern Computers in Terrace Bay to market and sell computers in First Nation communities, as well as provide training for new users. Potential buyers in aboriginal communities are simply more comfortable dealing with someone from Pic River, McGinn explains. The corporation also owns and operates its own cable company which includes a community channel with local programming.  Pic River is also known for its two hydro stations—with four more in the planning stages. Revenue from the 13.5-megawatt station on the Black River has been used to finance $500,000 worth of other band projects, including the purchase of a section of Lake Superior shoreline for a future waterfront project.

Despite those businesses, LeClair maintains increased logging opportunities remain critical to the future of Pic River. “Our regional economy was built on forestry,” he says. “It’s still one of the largest employers in our region. When the mines eventually shut down in the next 10 years, certainly the logging industry will be relied on to continue to employ the majority of people working in our area.”

Today, the biggest challenge is shifting markets and falling lumber prices that resulted in some mills in the area being shut down and not being able to take their wood, McGinn adds. “It’s just market changes and being in close contact with the mills to get a feel for that.” He adds ministry directives can be restrictive, including on the Black River Forest where cutting on Buchanan’s own licence means the wood must go to the mill in Dubreuilville—and on the White River Forest with poplar going to Weyerhaeuser’s OSB mill in Wawa. “That’s a must-sell directive,” McGinn notes. “So you’re a bit powerless when it’s a must-sell agreement.”

Still, LeClair says he’s “encouraged by the laws of today,” including the province’s Environmental Assessment Act, which includes aboriginals in the planning process and is creating opportunities for First Nation communities in forestry. “Implementation of that law and the spirit of that law is something we strive for,” he says, adding the Pic River First Nation is, historically, involved in a land claim and has been advocating for a sawmill since the 1940s. “We have issues with welfare. We have issues with unemployment that we’re trying to address, just like other communities.

“Certainly for communities that are facing an employment crisis, as many aboriginal communities are, the logging industry should be looked at first and foremost as a possible way to address that situation.”

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