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Rolling With the Changes

While changes in the New Brunswick forest industry sometimes make running a logging operation more complicated, contractors and forest companies in the central part of the province are responding with a few changes of their own.

By Harold Hatheway
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Over the last 15 years New Brunswick's logging industry has been quietly restructured. Prior to the 1982 Crown Lands and Forests Act, the large forest companies ran their own logging operations from start to finish - they owned the equipment hired the workers and supervised the ground operations.

But these days, the big companies no longer have to buy expensive equipment, or hire crews, or concern themselves with the paperwork and administration that's involved with that side of the business. The onus now falls to the contractors or sub-licensees - who pass the work on to the contractors - push the paper and meet capital costs, in bad times as well as good. Because private land is overcut, and the large forest licensees and their sub-licensees prefer dealing with established, well-equipped and highly skilled regular contractors, some of the smaller operators are falling by the wayside. Due to these developments - and pressure on Crown and private lands - a new breed of contractor is emerging in New Brunswick.

Licensee St. Ann Nackawick, sub-licensee ML Wilkins, and major contractors in the central part of the province are typical of what has evolved from the changes in the New Brunswick forest industry. St. Ann, which operates a hardwood pulp mill, is required to supply specified amounts of wood to the sub-licensee, Wilkins, which operates a medium-sized sawmill, and to several smaller specialty processors.

Working for sub-licensee Wilkins, Reid Pert has been the "man in the middle" since 1995. Pert is the contact for St. Ann, the Wilkins contractors, smaller processors and the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Pert feels companies like Wilkins now have more control over their operations, equipment purchases and the product that goes to their own mill, which ties in with government requirement for maximum utilization of forest raw material.

Does this system make the Wilkins operation more complicated? "Yes and no," says Pert, who reels off where the logs go. "We supply red pine to Little's Sawmill which cuts specialized product for Atlantic Pressure Treating, poplar veneer logs to Nelson Veneer, hardwood sawlogs to Sparks' Sawmill, hardwood and yellow birch logs go to Napadogan Veneer. There's all sorts of logs going in all directions. But because our sub-contractors and their workers are so experienced, they can do the job quickly and well."

A contractor in a block with mixed species selects as he harvests, sorting by species and even by parts of individual logs, and piles each category separately so it can easily be picked up, loaded and delivered.

The "best use" designation for logs automatically determines what log goes where and the DNR and St. Ann's people work with the crews to ensure best use of the wood. They advise Wilkins or the contractors if the quality is inadequate, or whether there might be a better use for logs. The contractors understand that getting the most out of a log is in everyone's interests.

On the forest side, Pert works with the contractors and St. Ann people, setting up blocks and making sure targets are met, regulations are observed, culverts are built properly, stream buffers are in place and sites are cleaned. On the mill side, he advises contractors about what's required by Wilkins mill and by other operators supplied from the St. Ann lease, about changes in DNR regulations, and about St. Ann's short and long-range plans.

"Our contractors have such a low worker turnover they have been able to build and keep crews," explains Pert. "They are now very well educated, and there are very few glitches. If we ask them to leave 18 square metres of crown, they understand what that means on the ground. This has all developed over time."

Pert likes New Brunswick's Crown Lands Act just as it is, but contractors who can adapt to public perceptions and new regulations will be better prepared for inevitable changes to come, and some contractors are taking the lead.

"One of our contractors has hired a qualified forest technician. That puts him in a better position to meet the new challenges, especially on private land, where the owner wants to know about options ranging from cut-and-skid to a processor."

While the system has delivered more control into the hands of contractors, with that control have come obligations, some of them financial. "Our contractors were working directly for the licensee before the changeover, so they were already established," says Pert. "They generally seem to feel they have more control, can decide what equipment to buy and when, but there is no doubt that their bankers are looking over their shoulders, and any slowdown, like an inventory shutdown at St. Ann, is scary."

Ralph Farrell, a Wilkins contractor, says he prefers working on private land over Crown land, but the wood just isn't there now, and he feels contractors cutting on private land will do themselves out of business if they keep on as they have. He previously contracted for a mid-size sawmill company.

"My company, MASJR, is cutting a lot more volume now," he says. "Last year I think we cut about 86 per cent of Wilkins wood and 52 per cent of St. Ann wood, hardwood and softwood together, but at a lower cost per unit." His equipment includes two Case 930s with Ultimate heads, two grapple skidders - an International 450 and 460 - a Serco200 slasher, and a Hood 2400 slasher. On the hauling side, Farrell has five International trucks, 435s and 460s. Rounding out the iron is an Austin Weston grader, a Hyundai 200 grader and a Dresser dozer.

"The present system means a lot of money invested in equipment and that's a worry if things get slow, but that's pail of the price if you want to run your own show."

While MASJR is essentially a logging contractor for Wilkins, and also builds roads in assigned blocks, Farrell takes great pride in his company's involvement in modern forestry techniques.

"We did the first architectural silviculture on St. Ann land, probably the first in the province. We did one of the first select cuts on St. Ann. This year we have five select cuts, two strip cuts, five deer yards and we're into advanced regeneration protection.

"We've set a lot of precedents, and we're proud of it. Crown or private, land belongs to the people and should be treated with respect, but these new, complicated procedures cost, and the proper return isn't there," says Farrell.

"We're proud of our early and extended use of temporary crossings. These are manufactured small bridges, brought in just before needed, lifted and placed on pads set well back from the stream edge. They are removed the same way no later than the end of March, or, if the cut is finished earlier, taken out with the last load of wood.

"The key to our success is doing things right, and the key to that is having good people. All of our crews except one are 'certified foresters', trained and qualified, and most of them have been with us for a number of years."

Elton Jewett logs under direct contract with St. Ann, and does private logging and general construction as well. "I've been logging for St. Ann for four or five years," says Jewett. "The changeover started about 12 to 14 years ago, when companies found their costs were high. I believe contractors can do the job cheaper, but now we have to buy the equipment. I've got two processors that cost $375,000 each and that's a lot of money." There are also other costs that contractors have to bear, says Jewett, such as workers' compensation.

Jewett's level of outside work depends on contract activity. Recently, St. Ann hadn't taken any wood, preceding a three-week shutdown. "So I'll cut some private land, work away at a company block, try to sell some wood stateside," he says. "I used to cut on private land more or less full-time, but you can't find private land to cut nowadays. My son works with me, and he does most of the construction work, roads and such, private contracts."

Like Ralph Farrell, Jewett prefers the present setup. "You always have a boss, and the public's a hard boss to satisfy, but I enjoy what I do. I started out by buying a truck when I got out of school, and I've been doing pretty much the same thing ever since. But I've got good men, and that means a lot. I've had fellows working for me for 15 years. They know their jobs, I don't have to tell them what to do."

Environmental regulations are complicated but necessary, says Jewett. "Years ago, you could just get out there and work, but now you need men who know and are responsible. I think that's right. It might get taken a bit too far at times, but when you look at the whole thing, we have to do it."

Jewett is a strong advocate of thinning. "Thinning's a good thing. I've got about 600 acres, half of it thinned. We did about 50 acres this year, and should have been at it before, but it's something you do when you find the time.

"It makes a real difference on a block of ground. I could show you some hardwood stands near here that were cut 12 to 14 years ago, and they went in and thinned them last year and this year, and the volume really jumped."

Jewett's equipment includes two Case 930B units with Ultimate heads, 210 Prentice and 270 Serco pulp loaders, and a Zero slasher. Rounding out the equipment are two front-end loaders - a Dresser 530 and Clark 75C - a Champion 740 grader, and two Case 1150 dozers. Most maintenance is done in their own shop by a full-time mechanic.

"We're fortunate to be doing business with Valley Forest (St. Ann), a good, fair company. I think we do good work, and they appreciate it. And they try to keep a man handy to his home. Having to drive for an hour or an hour-and-a-half morning and night is tough for you and your men."

New Training Program for NB Forest Workers

The professional status of Scandinavian forest workers could be held up as an ideal for the Canadian forest industry; they are well-trained, safety conscious and informed about both the industry and environmental regulations. Workers in New Brunswick's forest industry are also beginning to earn that status and respect, and can look forward to a new education program that would produce Certified Professional Forest Workers.

New Brunswick forest stakeholders - the forest industry, woodlot owners, contractors, worker associations and training organizations - have established a program emphasizing quality, industry-wide standards and partnership, in which they can all claim ownership.

Compulsory components include forestry acts and regulations, structure and issues affecting the forest sector, fire and emergency procedures, as well as general forestry, including tree identification, forest environment and alternate methods of harvesting.

Completion of the compulsory subjects, plus one or more courses on manual or heavy equipment, leads to certification. Built-in workplace monitoring and audits would ensure that standards are maintained.

New Brunswick Community College-Miramichi (NBCC), with courses covering much of the proposed program, co-operated with stakeholders to develop a formal curriculum. A two-day "pretest I by NBCC examiners identifies candidates with required knowledge and skills, who can be certified immediately.

NBCC-trained instructors and contractors picked candidates based on three to five years experience, with a commitment to remain in forestry, and current unemployed status (classes were timed for the spring slack period).

The first three groups at St. Ann Nackawick started with core subjects, in a classroom, causing St. Ann trainer Stephen Hawkes some concerns - to sit a veteran forest worker in a classroom to study bureaucratic rules and regulations could be looking for trouble, or at least severe boredom.

Training Program

Once core subjects were completed in the classroom, participants in the forest worker training program went to the woods to review their knowledge and skills on thinning.

That didn't happen, as curriculum input from forest workers and woodlot owners themselves ensured their concerns were included. The participants reacted favourably to careful planning and the informal, adult atmosphere. Top-notch resource people played a major role and, perhaps most importantly, participant involvement made a significant contribution to the overall success of the program.

"In the three courses I was looking at a total of 661 years of very broad experience," says Hawkes, "and once that was shared things just took off. And because we did extensive evaluation, things just got better."

The program included a two-day standard first aid course with CPR, an in-depth look at forest operations and wildlife habitat; environmental flashpoints, including the spotted owl; modern scaling techniques; an introduction to tree and plant life in the forest; the control and use of fire in forest management; modern forest management techniques and alternatives; the economic and employment role of the forest industry and, of course, the rules and regulations under which the industry operates in New Brunswick.

Once core subjects were completed, the groups moved to the woods to demonstrate and be tested on knowledge of two major skills - operation and maintenance of the chainsaw or thinning saw, and the more complex knowledge of how best to use the equipment to promote the kind of forest New Brunswick wants in the future. In the near future courses will be offered on the operation and maintenance of skidders, processors, slasher/delimber/loader, and in foremanship, any one of which can complete the requirements for certification.

Judging by the reactions of instructors, resource persons and, above all, participants, Certified Professional Forest Workers are the wave of the future, and a major step forward in New Brunswick's key forest industry.

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