Forestry's 'perfect storm'
The Chilcotin's beetle-killed lodge-pole pine forests are saturated with water. The harvesting crews have been sent home. And logging trucks known as Super-B Trains, hauling 300 to 400 logs apiece, are inching their way through deep mud wallows.
Tolko Industries Ltd. needs 125 loads per day to feed its two operating mills in Williams Lake, and likes to maintain a raw-wood inventory of a week or so.
Conditions in the bush have reduced that to as little as one day when The Vancouver Sun visits.
"We're tight, to say the least," confirms Kevin Sytsma, a forestry manager for the privately owned timber company.
The problem is a combination of unseasonably wet weather (following two years of dry conditions) and the fact that dead pine trees no longer absorb water like a living forest. Depending on soil conditions, that can leave excessive moisture on the ground, hampering logging operations and potentially slowing regrowth of the next generation's seedlings.
Clearcutting can also make matters worse, research shows, contributing to increased flooding problems, especially in spring, until the new forest returns to more normal conditions.
This particular site - rocky and poor for growing - is known as the Boulder Patch. It's tough on equipment and is being logged by a Tolko contractor, San Jose Logging of Williams Lake.
"It's standing water and it's not going anywhere," laments Dallas Getz, whose family owns San Jose. "Out here, there's a lot of clay so it takes longer to dry out."
Conditions in the bush can vary widely, even from one side of a hill to the other. Logging superintendent Ray Rodger notes the roads are drying out faster than the bush.
"We've had so much rain out here now we can't push it any farther. We've done all we can without having any environmental issues out here."
It's been a full decade since the B.C. government started increasing the annual allowable cut of lodgepole pine stands by an average 80 per cent in the hardest-hit Lakes, Prince George and Quesnel timber supply areas. More recently, the cut has been reduced to 40 per cent above pre-epidemic levels. Today's reality for the forest industry involves travelling longer distances to salvage-log dead pine trees, the quality of which has deteriorated over the years.
But the pine beetle is the least of industry's concerns: forest companies have been hurt even more by the weak economy and reduced lumber demands in the U.S., coupled with the strong Canadian dollar.
"The global economic downturn, specifically the decline in the North American building market, has been a larger factor," confirmed Doug Routledge, vice-president of forestry and northern operations for the Council of Forest Industries.
Guenter Weckerle, woods manager for West Fraser Timber in Williams Lake, calls the current situation a "perfect storm" and credits forest companies for reinvesting in their mills over the years - so they can continue to extract value from dead pine and remain economically viable in such tough times.
Provincial figures for medium and large mills in the Interior show that 78 mills produced 10.3 billion board feet of lumber in 2001. Fewer mills, 72, produced a high of 14.2 billion board feet in 2006 during a market surge. In 2009, there were just 53 mills, producing a total of 7.9 billion board feet.
B.C.-wide, the provincial government reports that 55,500 people were directly employed in the forest industry in 2010, compared with 88,600 in 2001, a decline of 37 per cent.
The amount of provincial funding available for forest research through competition, including to academic, consulting, and industry researchers has also declined dramatically over the past decade, to $2.5 million in 2010 from $38.8 million in 1997, according to calculations by New Direction Resource Management.
Routledge attributes forestry's downward trend to economic slumps "unparalleled" in their "depth and duration." That, and some sawmills switching to non-lumber products such as plywood and engineered wood, including oriented strand board, which is formed by layers of wood.
He credits mills' continued survival to three factors:
. Provincial policies, including faster cutting approvals and the passage of the "resultsbased" Forest and Range Practices Act, which puts the onus on companies to meet government objectives.
. Senior governments working with industry on market retention and development.
. Industry reinvestment in milling technology to get better recovery from the dead wood and to sort logs by moisture content for better kiln results.
There are two shelf lives in the salvage logging of beetle-killed pine, he explains.
One is the biological shelf life, with trees losing their value within a year of falling down; the other is the economic shelf life, with market demand dictating whether logging in any given site is economically viable.
The hopeful news for loggers is in the biological shelf life. The rate of deterioration has largely flattened out, Routledge said, with much of the cracking of the wood having already occurred.
He noted pine trees killed during a prior beetle event in the mid-1980s - the spread of which was arrested by cold weather - are still being harvested in colder, drier, higher-elevation areas where there is reduced rot.
One of industry's biggest challenges still lies ahead.
During the rush to harvest as much beetle-killed pine as quickly as possible, the province charged stumpage rates as low as 25 cents per cubic metre - much of that lumber shipped in containers to China.
The U.S. claims those stumpage rates are unfair and is seeking a $499-million penalty against Interior forest companies under the Softwood Lumber Agreement.
VARIED LOGGING SEASON
Back in the Chilcotin's Big Creek watershed, wetter forests after the pine beetle epidemic have affected all aspects of logging, including the timing of breakup - the spring snowmelt when wet conditions in the forest typically preclude logging.
"We used to log up to the end of February and early March, fill the mill yards with logs, then everybody would go home for two months," said Larry Price, a Tolko harvesting manager.
Nowadays, crews work as soil conditions and the vagaries of weather allow, with the company struggling to get some workers into the bush by July this year.
Cutting is done by a machine called a feller-buncher, a type of heavy equipment that snips the pine trees then stacks them, ready for the skidder operator to transport them roadside to a processor that de-limbs and cuts the logs to length. A loader then puts the logs onto the trucks for delivery to markets.
So far this year, Tolko's Soda Creek mill shut down for six days due to lack of wood blamed on wet conditions, while the Lakeview mill closed for 19 days. A third mill in Williams Lake, Creekside, has been closed since 2009 due to economic reasons related to market demand.
The ground is so slippery this day that once a Super-B Train is full of logs, the loader operator nudges it from behind until it is on more solid ground.
The trucks used to haul about 58 cubic metres of green logs in three bundles, but the lighter dead pine allows for loads of up 68 to 70 cubic metres of the same weight.
Increasingly, timber companies are being forced to drive farther afield and build ever more logging roads to access dead timber that remains merchantable.
The distance from Tolko's Boulder Patch logging site, here on the Interior Plateau, to the mill in Williams Lake is about 135 kilometres, a round trip of seven hours, including one hour for loading and unloading. Logging sites farther west have a nine to 10-hour round-trip cycle; drivers stay overnight at Tolko's Big Creek camp.
Some forestry crews in remote areas use the SPOT tracking device, a satellite-based personal locator beacon for safety in case they get into trouble.
Culled wood - everything from tree tops to wood with rot or other defects that makes them worthless to the lumber mills - are piled in rows by the roadside, ready to be burned this winter.
Anything beyond about a four-hour round trip to markets makes it uneconomic to chip up the lesser wood for use in heating mill operations or as wood pellets for the biofuel sector - an industry that can also have negative environmental effects.
A 2011 study - headed by Tom Sullivan of the department of forest sciences at the University of B.C. and published in the journal, Biomass and Bioenergy - showed "for the first time" that such piles of woody debris "maintain habitat for red-backed voles" and are thought to increase biodiversity in a clearcut.
Because the "demand for biomass for bioenergy" has the potential to "negatively impact" biodiversity, forest managers must give due consideration to both, the study said.
Meanwhile, the slump in forestry has resulted in more contractors, equipment operators and tradesmen, such as heavyduty mechanics, have moved to Alberta's oilpatch in recent years. Or, to higher-paying mining jobs, including two in the Williams Lake area: Gibraltar and Mount Polley.
ALLOWABLE CUT REDUCED
It's been a decade since the province started ramping up the annual allowable cut in the Interior to address the beetle epidemic, which has killed at least 17.5 million hectares of pine, an area more than five times the size of Vancouver Island.
The allowable-cut increase averaged 80 per cent in the hard-hit Lakes, Prince George and Quesnel timber supply areas, but more recently has been reduced to 40 per cent above pre-epidemic levels.
Tolko is one of several players on Crown land under salvage logging, including several first nations.
Tsi Del Del Enterprises, a joint venture company with Tolko based at Chilanko Forks in the Chilcotin, won a business leadership award this year from the Forest Products Association of Canada and Assembly of First Nations.
It's up to licensees to get together and make "gentleman's agreements" on who should cut where, Sytsma said. "You have to look at principles of fairness in access to timber ... I'm putting a positive spin on it."
Since 2005, guidelines from the province's chief forester, Jim Snetsinger, have urged timber companies to retain patches of trees within salvage-logged pine clearcuts on a sliding scale - as little as 10 per cent in cutblocks up to 250 hectares and a maximum of 25 per cent for cutblocks greater than 1,000 hectares.
These are not compulsory; under the Forest and Range Practices Act, adopted by the Liberal government in 2004, the province set objectives and left it to the timber companies to decide how to get there.
Sytsma says wildlife patches are critical for allowing wildlife such as mule deer, bear and moose to move through the landscape, providing both thermal cover and escape cover.
MAKING MOST FROM TREES
At Tolko's Soda Creek mill, meanwhile, plant manager Ryan Oliver explains how the company has invested $7 million on its "canter line," one example of an industry-wide efficiency program to allow the mills to squeeze more wood out of the dead pine trees and remain profitable.
The automated line takes a pine log, rotates it to determine the best way to recover lumber, then chips away at the sides to produce a cant. A second scanner confirms that calculation, then a curve saw does the actual cut to maximize recovery of the wood as lumber. Once the wood seasons, the curve straightens out.
The stud lumber (an inferior grade to dimensional lumber) is shipped almost exclusively to China in containers, much of it used for concrete forms.
"We take the lower end of the spectrum at this mill and we do what we can," says Oliver, noting the emerging market helps the company to maintain its workforce.
The experience is similar for other companies. Mark Feldinger is a senior vice-president for Canfor, the largest logger of beetle-killed pine in B.C. The company has harvested 7.4-million cubic metres of conifers so far this year in the Interior, the vast majority of which has been targeted at mountain pine beetle attacked stands.
About 30 per cent of the lumber goes to China, compared with less than 50 per cent to the U.S. In addition to Canadian markets, the company also sells to South Korea and Taiwan, with a future eye to India. Up to 10 per cent of pine-beetle wood fibre - including bark, sawdust and shavings - is being used to power and heat the company's mills, as well as for sale to wood-pellet operations.
Routledge said prices for pine lumber have dropped from a high of $300-plus per thousand board feet a decade ago to $170180 in 2009 and now sit in the mid-low $200s today, with increased efficiencies allowing companies to keep operating.
At Tolko's Soda Creek mill, the amount of wood the mill gets out of a log has declined by about 10 per cent since 2004 as the pine stands deteriorate, Oliver said.
On the other hand, he added, the beetle-killed wood requires less fuel for drying, just a 30-minute heat treatment in the kiln to kill any bugs and meet China's import requirements.
For now, the economics of salvage logging the Interior's pine forests remain marginal, with industry holding out for an eventual U.S. recovery and better economic times.
Ultimately, however, the prospects for a robust forest economy may seem less certain than the inexorable return of the mountain pine beetle - a pest, sure, but also a species as natural to the Interior as the moose or black bear. Exactly when it returns in force - and how society prepares for that day - are the unanswered questions.
A five-part series on the lingering effect of the mountain pine beetle infestation and the strategies used to fight the pest and salvage as much wood as possible.
Saturday: Pine beetles, salvage logging and the environment
Saturday: Inside a 'dead' forest
Monday: Flooding and the effect on ranchers
Tuesday: The bite of salvage logging on ecotourism
TODAY: The struggling forest industry