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Sawlogs from SALVAGE

Ontario logging contractor Decicon Harvesting is proving that salvaging inferior quality trees can be economically viable.
By Tony Kryzanowski

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Pierre Gagnon and Christine St. Pierre (above) have built a solid business around the commercial thinning of inferior quality trees. Their equipment includes a Valmet 644 forwarder (left), a Cat 307 equipped with a Hahn harvester/processor head and a Komatsu PC95 with a Hahn head.

While an early date with the grim reaper is a reality for many inferior quality trees, a Foleyet, Ontario forest company has built a solid business around the timely commercial thinning of these lost causes. Decicon Harvesting owners Pierre Gagnon and Christine St. Pierre have convinced themselves and a few customers that timely commercial thinning in a jackpine fire origin forest can generate a hidden wood resource that is economically viable. It has helped to have a mentor. Domtar’s Timmins general manager Rob Edmonds has stuck with them over the past five years and, from Domtar’s perspective, it is a definite win-win-win situation. They acquire wood that normally dies in the forest’s natural evolution and the process employed by Decicon Harvesting delivers minimal environmental damage.

The end result is a better-managed cutblock Typically, Decicon conducts a careful and thorough survey of potential commercial thinning sites. Because they derive all their income from wood they harvest, not every cutblock provides them with the wood volume they require to remain economically viable. While they plan to experiment in the future with black spruce, an excellent candidate at present is about a 35 to 40-year-old jackpine stand, with an average diametre at breast height of 12.5 centimetres to 15 centimetres (5" to 6"). We are harvesting potential mortality, says St. Pierre. If you go into a stand that is old, you can see that it is already starting to thin itself out. Their first priority is to remove trees with a high risk of mortality, as well as poor quality stems such as those with forks and crooks. It is actually much better wood than anybody thought, says Gagnon. During their first attempt a few years ago, their goal was to leave 950 stems in a cutblock containing 1,700.

We figured that we salvaged about 35 cubic metres per hectare, leaving 950 dominant stems, Gagnon says. You are not going to get 2,000 stems per hectare in a natural, 80-year-old jackpine stand. We’ve walked a lot of them just for our own personal reference and you are looking at 700 to 900 stems. In a worst case scenario, Gagnon says the forest company acquired an additional 500 to 600 stems from a cutblock that normally would have ended up providing great housing for chipmunks and squirrels, or even worse, excellent fuel for fire. Decicon’s main clients include Tembec and Superior Forest Products, as well as Domtar.

When they first approached forest companies in the area about the potential of the wood resource, woodlands personnel were concerned with the recovery of merchantable wood. Gagnon points out that the actual recovery percentage depends on how each company describes a sawlog. For example, once Superior Forest Products indicated to them that they would accept a sawlog 10 feet long topped at four inches, they were able to deliver 85 to 90 percent sawlogs. It doesn?t cost the forestry companies more to get commercial thinning done, says St. Pierre. Domtar does pay us top dollar for the wood, and the factor on it is locked in so they can?t penalize us for cleansing what is there. Sometimes it?s junky wood. But it is still merchantable wood. While Decicon is providing an invalu-able service, one has to ask why they are doing this. It would be a lot easier simply to use their 20 years of harvesting experience in a clearcut application.

While both St. Pierre and Gagnon believe that clearcut harvesting has an important role to play in specific forestry settings, they have a personal preference for commercial thinning. They put a high priority on forest aesthetics. We don?t like the open field look, says Gagnon. Here it seems, at the end of the day, you can set a picnic table up and be proud of your work. We?ve had game wardens drive through our cutblocks and ask us where we are getting the wood from as they drive by our piles. The potential for environmental damage resulting from the use of feller bunchers and grapple skidders does not appeal to them.

They estimate that as they travel through the cutblocks with their two harvester/ processors and forwarder, they dis-turb only 13 to 15 per cent of the land base. The road to economic viability in a harvesting endeavour that they are clearly proud of has not been an easy one. Their entry into forestry began with hand skidding and brush saws. While conducting manual thinning we ended up working in older stands all the time, says Gagnon. We realized that we could be salvaging some of the wood, and that?s how we got started. After attempting to recover merchantable, yet high risk, stems with hand fellers, they concluded that they could sub stantially improve their production and bottom line by investing in a mechanical harvesting system.

They visited with contractors harvesting wood from red pine plantations in southern Ontario where they found that the Hahn harvester/processor head was extremely popular. When they had settled on a range of carrier sizes and processing heads, it was hard to find an equipment dealer who would take them seriously.

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Everyone wanted to sell theman axe, when what they needed was a pair of tweezers. Eventually, they purchased a Caterpillar 307 carrier, the smallest carrier available to them, and a 14-inch Hahn harvester/-processor head. The carrier delivers 54 hp and measures 7'10" in width. They use 24" pads that deliver almost no ground pressure. The package’s total weight is about 17,000 lbs. “When we bought that carrier from Caterpillar, the dealer was normally selling feller bunchers that weigh 50,000 to 60,000 lbs. Then they saw this little thing go out,” says Gagnon. “It was a fifth of the size.” Two and a half years later, the Cat carrier now has 5,200 hours on it. Decicon has just purchased a new Komatsu PC95 carrier with a Hahn 16" head. They forward to roadside using a Valmet 644 nine-ton forwarder. St. Pierre says they investigated purpose-built cut-to-length systems, but the Komatsu and Hahn combination was one-third the price. “The price was what we thought we could handle,” she says.

That is particularly important because they can not always guar-antee that every cutblock will pan out as a pure money-maker. If they suddenly encounter high volumes of small wood over an extended period of time, they don’t have a large equipment payment looming. Typically, their two harvester/processors and the forwarder will work togeth-er in the same cutblock. They can only cut in the daylight because they need to visually inspect each tree from the cab before making a harvesting decision. “We keep our trails weaved,” explains Gagnon. “We try to keep our trails anywhere from 15 to 20 metres apart, and just keep moving over.” The work is extremely meticulous and they have difficulty finding staff willing to work under these demanding conditions.

The operator is required to evaluate every tree prior to cutting it, must take extreme care how each tree is dropped, while avoiding severe residual tree damage from carrier tail swing. It takes about a year for Decicon Harvesting to completely train an operator. To date, they have commercially thinned about 500 hectares for Domtar, 75 hectares for Superior Forest Products and 50 hectares for Tembec. Domtar is so impressed with Decicon’s success that they have designated five years of additional work for the company. “After two years, they (other contractors) are starting to say, oh geez, maybe it does make sense,” says Gagnon. St. Pierre is related to Gagnon and is an active partner is the business, taking a regular shift operating the forwarder.

When she attends forestry meetings, “it’s never negative, except I think they usually wonder whose wife I am,” she says. “When we go to meetings, I believe they think I’m the secretary and I’m there to take notes.” Decicon Harvesting seems to have made a habit of breaking stereotypes and showing that what many thought was the impossible is in fact quite possible. As companies evolve toward managing plantations, second and subsequent cuts and consider intensive forest management practices, the harvesting of fibre at key intervals to improve recovery cannot be ignored. And while forest companies may have difficulty finding contractors who will take on this challenge, Decicon Harvesting’s approach may convince some of them that this type of harvesting is economically viable.

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