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Special Challenges

Helilogging on the steep slopes around BC’s Harrison Lake brings its own set of challenges for contractor B&M Logging.

By Rick Crosby

Environmental issues were worked into the sale involving helicopter logging above Harrison Lake.  The cut blocks were classified as deer wintering ground and work couldn't be done between November 1 and March 15.

The weather outside Mike Whieldon’s home office near Mission, British Columbia is hot and dry—a far cry from two weeks previous when near white-out winter conditions forced a delay in a helicopter logging sale above nearby Harrison Lake. Traffic is light today as Whieldon, president of B&M Logging Ltd, drives up a 42 kilometre logging road to a landing.

“This is where fallers get shuttled across,” Whieldon says, as he greets Dave Hawking who flies crew in a Bell 206 helicopter across the lake to a series of cut blocks where B&M Logging is helicopter logging 60 per cent fir, a mixture of 35 per cent hemlock and balsam and five per cent cedar.

An empty drop bucket is visible from one side of the Bell 206 support helicopter as he flies over Harrison Lake to the cut blocks. Another drop bucket is half full of logs. “They’ve been flying out of “E” Series cut blocks,” Hawking says over his head set. A few minutes later, Hawking sets the Bell 206 down on a helipad in a cut block about 600 metres above the lake. Whieldon hikes down the steep terrain and emerges on a lower elevation block where fallers are cutting 90 per cent fir.

The sale consisted of a mix of 60 per cent fir, 35 per cent hemlock/balsam and five per cent cedar. Timber averaged 45 to 50 centimetres at the butt.

Whieldon started logging part-time on private land in the Fraser Valley in 1987. “My brother-in-law worked in logging and we started out with firewood and cutting cottonwood for Scott Paper,” he says. He went into conventional logging, hoe chucking and skidder logging on five- and ten-acre parcels. Eventually, he graduated to high-lead and skyline logging. The next jump was helicopter logging. The 22 cut blocks above Harrison Lake are designed to be cut from small stands on steep terrain.

The sale was put up by the Chilliwack Small Business Forest Enterprise Program two weeks before contractors could bid on it. “We just got the water drop approval permit,” Whieldon says. The steepness of the ground, visual and stream impacts and wildlife trees were issues addressed by the BC Forest Service before the site was laid out. The blocks are away from creeks and sensitive areas and visuals are not extensively impacted. The operation looks streamlined and efficient, but putting a sale together is a process that can take from one to two years before the Forest Service completes the package and offers it for tender.

If a contractor is interested in a sale, he’ll pick up the package and walk as many of the blocks as he can to get an approximate value of the timber and calculate the harvesting costs. The contractor has to determine what it costs to set up the water drop pockets, then try to figure out the costs of booming and towing to a site where the wood can be de-watered. Once the process of getting a sale ready is completed, the competition starts.

Mike Whieldon of B&M Logging on a helipad of one of the cutblocks.

For every one job available, there’s probably 10 or 15 contractors that need work. “It’s tough,” Whieldon admits. “You might bid on six, seven or eight sales before you actually get one and you have to be efficient.” Whieldon went out to the site three different times with the helicopter to walk the blocks. “Basically it’s probably another week of phone calls and inquiries to get everything priced out,” he says.

The total volume of the sale on steep ground above Harrison Lake is just under 16,000 cubic metres. It’s an old growth stand between 140 and 200 years old with wood averaging 45 to 50 centimetres at the butt. The sale includes four blocks totaling 5.1 hectares in the “A” series, eight blocks totaling 10.7 hectares in the “C” series, six blocks totaling 7.8 hectares in the “D” series and four blocks totaling 3.5 hectares in the “E” series. Most of the cutblocks are on benches with 60-degree slopes.

A good portion of the logs will be sold in the domestic market with some wood possibly going to the Japanese or US markets. The crew started flying logs off the blocks using a Bell 214 helicopter, working seven days a week. The ground crews put in 11-hour shifts. “It’ll average out to about one to 1.2 cubic metres per log for the sale,” Whieldon says. “We do about 24 turns an hour on an eight hour shift, averaging 200 turns per day.”

The crew includes six to nine fallers, depending on how much timber is needed on the ground to keep ahead of the helicopters. There are two helicopter pilots, one engineer, four guys on the hill and two on the water. The crew commutes daily to work. Most of the helicopter crew stays in town at Harrison Hot Springs. Many of the fallers are from Mission or Chilliwack in the Fraser Valley.

The ground on these small cut blocks is not as steep as some of the ground on larger blocks that Whieldon has harvested. The big difference is access. “If you have one bigger block, you can put all the fallers on one or two pads and they can walk to where they’re working,” Whieldon says. “But with this site, you pretty much have to have a helipad on each little individual block.” From the cut blocks, the logs are dropped into a drop pocket where boom boat and sidewinder crew remove the chokers.

The wood is taken out of the water using a John Deere 992 loader which stays on the barge. Whieldon likes the 992. “It’s a good machine,” he says. “We’re taking logs out of the drop bucket and loading a bunking rack on the barge.” The wood is dumped back in the water and towed to Lakeside Pacific Dry Sort Forest Products at Bear Creek on Harrison Lake. The logs are taken out of the water at Bear Creek and scaled, sorted and then re-boomed and towed down the Harrison River to the Fraser River.

Harrison Lake can get pretty rough in the early spring and booming the wood is the only way to tow the logs without loosing them. The logs not towed will be trucked out of Bear Creek using Whieldon’s Western Star logging truck. “Some of the wood will be sold up-country and we’ll use the truck to haul the logs to the Interior,” Whieldon says. The Western Star is also used to haul the fuel tanker. “It’s got a jeep with a pole trailer which hooks into the fifth wheel. The truck can also be used to haul other trailers.” Meeting the environmental requirements on the sale is feasible using a helicopter because the stems can be harvested straight up. “Even if there were creeks within the blocks, harvesting is a lot easier,” Whieldon says.

The environmental issues were worked into the sale. The cut blocks above Harrison Lake, for example, are classified as deer wintering ground and work couldn’t be done between November 1 and March 15. “If you come across an eagle’s nest or spotted owl or bear dens, you stop working and get hold of the Ministry of Forests and they come out and address it,” Whieldon says. The key to helicopter logging is organization. The extra cost to mobilize and de-mobilize on this 22-block sale is over $2 a cubic metre, partly because of the isolation of Harrison Lake. Whieldon also ran into towing restrictions on the Fraser River.

“We had to bring a second barge up because there’s no landing close by the fuel supply,” he says. Organization and experience are important, but the quality of wood on helicopter logging sales is not always high. The end result can be a return on a sale that sometimes barely sustains itself.

Even though the quality of wood and the stumpage rate on the Harrison Lake sale was fairly high, the return from the sale will be borderline at best. Competing for a timber sale and hard work is part of logging but uncertainty in BC’s coastal forest industry means contractors don’t know if they’re going to be able to sell their wood. “At this point it’s quite a gamble,” Whieldon says. The alternative may be to apply for an export permit. But that is a process that can take six to eight weeks.

Meanwhile logs are sitting somewhere and there’s no money coming in. “You’ve got to pay the stumpage within 30 days and employees have to get paid, so you’re working on a fine line,” Whieldon says. “You’re lucky if you’re getting two or three per cent profit to start with. So the more uncertainty, the longer you have to hold the inventory of logs.”

It’s been a tough go for many small business contractors in BC since the mid-1990s. Problems arise quickly and get solved slowly. “The most important thing is to watch how much you’re spending and try to budget for the worst-case scenario,” Whieldon says. “Hopefully you can survive. Then when things get better, you’ll be alright.” Helicopter logging, despite its very high costs, makes harvesting steep slopes viable. “Your costs don’t change,” Whieldon says. “It costs a certain amount of money to helicopter log regardless of what the timber is worth.”

The problem is that the price of logs is now so low that no matter what a contractor does, it’s a challenge to make a profit. In spite of the uncertainty, Whieldon is encouraged by the potential for logging steep terrain in the Chilliwack Forest District. “If the markets improve,” he says, “I think there will be a lot more timber available logging steep slopes with helicopters in the long range.”

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