Switching Gears in Alberta…To Forestry

by | May 1, 2023 | 2023, Harvesting, Logging & Sawmilling Journal, May/June

“Backwoods Forestry Solutions is a big wheel that is just starting to turn.”

That is how Slade Becker, Project Manager at Backwoods Forestry Solutions, characterizes the Alberta company’s recent decision to change directions from logging solely for the oil and gas sector to logging primarily for forest companies.

Backwoods Forestry Solutions has taken on a logging contract with an Alberta forest company to supply 100,000 cubic metres of wood each year for five years, with the potential for another 50,000 cubic metres. According to Becker, the company is also in discussions with several other forest companies.

Headquartered in Edmonton, this business endeavor is only one division of several operating under the Backwoods umbrella, and owned 100 per cent by the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation situated near Gunn, Alberta, about 60 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. For nearly two decades, Backwoods was a partnership between the Alexis Nation and a private investor, but in 2021 they bought out their partner.

What’s noteworthy about this logging contract is that Backwoods Forestry Solutions will be logging on lands that have been occupied and used by the Nakota Sioux for hundreds of years. Their first logging assignment is within Treaty 6 territory at Chip Lake near Edson.

Alberta contractor Backwoods Forestry Solutions

One skill that Backwoods Forestry Solutions learned from its nearly two decades logging for the oil and gas industry was how to deal with a variety of wood species and fibre sizes, as all of the wood is removed from a right of way (ROW), with the goal of salvaging as much as possible.

“Our goal is to have a self-sufficient indigenous company working directly for the mills,” says Becker.

He adds that both Backwoods and the forest company are very pleased with this business relationship and there is excitement within the community for the steady work available in their own backyard.

That is a primary reason why Backwoods has pivoted toward logging for the forest industry. Compared with the unpredictability of right-of-way (ROW) logging contracts for the oil and gas sector, forestry logging provides stable and predictable employment for workers, as well as predictable cash flow for the company. They have the added benefit of being able to provide experienced equipment operators from their oilfield work to their forestry operations, and have also hired a forestry superintendent with 35 years’ experience.

Backwoods Forestry Solutions has two fully-equipped logging lines and is purchasing equipment for a third. They are also field training new equipment operators and truck drivers to man this third line. They are a stump-to-mill contractor, with not only the ability to log, but also transport wood fibre to their client’s mill.

The fact that Backwoods Forestry Solutions can also provide the trucking is valuable to both their client and to Backwoods, given the current shortage of available, qualified log truck drivers. It provides employment for local indigenous workers who will be trained in how to transport logs, and reduces stress for their client, knowing that their logs will be delivered from a reliable source.

The seven divisions within Backwoods are logging, manufacture and supply of resource mats, security, civil, mechanical, logistics and reclamation and remediation. For the nearly two decades of their existence, they have logged entirely for the oil and gas sector on a number of major pipeline projects. They have also conducted mine remediation and reclamation for major mining companies. All told, there are 800 employees working within the seven Backwoods divisions, reaching as high as 1,200 at certain times of the year.

Alberta contractor Backwoods Forestry SolutionsAnother primary goal of this indigenous-owned endeavor is to increase employment opportunities for First Nations. One of their partners is the Alexander First Nation located north of Edmonton near Morinville. At present, about 15 per cent of the Backwoods workforce is indigenous. The goal is to reach 30 per cent by 2030. Growing their logging activities for forest companies is a big part of their overall growth and employment plan.

“The philosophy at Backwoods is to give members of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation opportunities to build careers and lifelong employment,” says Becker, providing members with life skills which they can develop either within Backwoods or in any other endeavor that they may decide to pursue down the road.

Becker knows all about the importance of developing marketable job skills and the value that companies put in those skills. He grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, and for nearly two decades worked primarily as an equipment operator for various companies. He joined Backwoods eight years ago and has risen steadily through the ranks, starting as an equipment operator, learning how to operate forestry equipment like feller bunchers. The company then promoted him to foreman, supervisor, and now, project manager, responsible for the entire logging division.

There are notable differences in right-of-way logging vs. logging for forest companies. One of the main differences, says Becker, is that there is much more management for wood fibre quality on forestry cutblocks. When logging ROWs, all the wood fibre is removed, regardless of its quality, within a defined space to make way for a pipeline.

Backwoods recently cleared the way for part of a major pipeline project in Alberta and B.C. They were responsible for logging a 75-kilometre section from the community of Nojack, east of Edson, to about halfway between Edson and Hinton. The ROW was mostly 60 metres wide. It involved logging, cutting stumps down to ground level, delivering salvaged logs to area forestry companies, creating and burning bush piles, and finally, mulching the entire area. It had a significant softwood and hardwood mix. Fortunately, there were facilities close by where merchantable fibre could be used both as sawlogs and as pulpwood. Becker estimates that about 75 per cent of the wood fibre was merchantable.

He adds that Backwoods Forestry Solutions encountered just about every obstacle imaginable on this project, such as slopes, soft ground conditions, fish-bearing and non-fish-bearing creek crossings, navigating safely across other pipelines and dealing with private landowners. And then there was the environmental scrutiny.

Alberta contractor Backwoods Forestry Solutions

Backwoods Forestry Solutions, owned by the Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation, has two experienced logging crews and is training a third. Right now, about 15 per cent of their employees are Indigenous. They hope to reach 30 per cent by 2030.

They were regularly being observed by members of the environmental activist community, so extra care and attention was given to the potential environmental impact of their logging activities. This involved their usual practice of placing spill and drip trays under equipment overnight, as well as complete equipment inspections at the beginning and after each shift. They also conducted full walkthroughs of each area slated for logging, with the entire crew, before any trees were removed, which often revealed areas of concern, such as pieces of metal left in the bush that they had to avoid, and sensitive creek crossings. A good part of their safety meetings was spent addressing these concerns.

“We had a whole checklist of things that we’d look for during the walkthrough,” says Becker. “It was slower going because of that. But we ensured that we didn’t run into any issues that would cause us to have a shutdown.”

They were under observation every day, and Backwoods Forestry Solutions finished the assignment with a good track record.

Given their experience dealing with a variety of ground conditions on this pipeline project and others over the years, this has definitely influenced their purchasing decisions on what equipment works best to suit their needs. For example, they recently bought a couple of John Deere 803M feller bunchers to work in their forestry logging operations to replace a much heavier and older unit they worked with in their ROW logging operations.

Supporting the feller bunchers are two John Deere 648G skidders, and two John Deere 2154 roadside processors with Waratah 622B processing heads. Their log loader is a Tigercat 870 machine. For transporting logs, they have six Kenworth T800 trucks in their fleet.

For their third line, they plan to split the equipment complement half and half between John Deere and Tigercat, while also adding another log loader and three more logging trucks.The Brandt Group is the Alberta dealer for John Deere equipment, and Wajax is the Tigercat dealer for Alberta.

One challenge they encountered regularly while working on the pipeline project was soft ground conditions. That’s why they are pleased with the performance their newer John Deere 803M feller bunchers have delivered so far.

“They are unreal machines,” says Becker. “They are light and their weight is well-distributed with long tracks. They also have tons of power, speed, and zero tail swing cabs for working in tight areas.”

Like other contractors, Backwoods Forestry Solutions is experiencing significant lead time for the delivery of parts and new equipment from equipment suppliers, which is why they are planning now for what they may need a year from now. They are in discussions with equipment suppliers regarding product availability and delivery time.

One benefit of having several divisions is that Backwoods can move support equipment, such as excavators, dozers and low beds, from one division to another as needed. They can also reassign truck drivers to support one division or another, depending on demand.

Backwoods is going further than diversifying into logging into the forest industry. They are also in discussions with a major wood pellet producer about making better use of wood residuals generated from their resource mat construction operations. The future, as the company sees it, is in the forest.

Tony Kryzanowski

Author

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