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FOREST MANAGEMENT

Managing the ranch

Managing the forests on BC’s Douglas Lake Ranch—which at half-a-million acres is one of the largest single land-holdings in Canada—brings its own set of challenges.

By Paul MacDonald

A harvesting focus these days at the Douglas Ranch is mountain pine beetle-affected wood.

The Douglas Lake Ranch is from another era—an era when ranching was one of the biggest activities in the British Columbia Interior and you saw cowboys every day on the main street of most communities, rather than just in the summer at the local rodeo. But at Douglas Lake Ranch, a crew of 15 full-time cowboys still start every morning by saddling their horses to attend to up to 22,000 head of cattle. The Douglas Lake Ranch is huge—it remains one of the largest single land-holdings in the entire country, let alone BC. The Douglas Lake Cattle Company, established in 1884, is comprised of over half a million acres in the heart of British Columbia’s Interior Plateau cattle country.

The ranch is just east of the community of Merritt, and about a three-hour drive from Vancouver. The ranch is expected to soon have a new owner. It had been owned by Bernard Ebbers, an Alberta-born, US-based business executive. Ebbers is the former CEO of WorldCom Inc, the multi-billion dollar telephone and data services company that has been much in the news this past year. WorldCom filed for bankruptcy protection last summer. Ebbers bought the ranch from the Woodward family, whose department stores once dotted shopping malls throughout BC and Alberta.

WorldCom gained control of the ranch from Ebbers, and it went up for sale this past January. One report identified Alice Walton, a Wal-Mart department store heiress, as one of the interested parties. While the ranch may seem to be from another time, there is nothing old-fashioned about the harvesting that is carried out on its 16,000 hectares of forest land, which contains an estimated 800,000 cubic metres of merchantable timber. While the main logging method remains tree length, using feller bunchers, cut-to-length equipment is also at work these days at Douglas Lake. “We’re finding fairly good success with the cut-to-length equipment,” says Marv Kempston of Westwood Fibre of Kamloops, BC.

Sorting wood with a John Deere loader at Douglas Lake. Since the ranch is made up entirely of private land, ranch management has complete control over its harvest—no government approvals are required.

Westwood, working closely with ranch management, has been managing the forests at Douglas Lake for the last 14 years. They handle the prep work, oversee the timber harvesting and market the timber for the ranch. Overall, the trees are representative of the region, with lodgepole pine and Douglas fir being predominant, followed by aspen and spruce. The Douglas Lake Ranch has a forest management plan, but Kempston notes that the plan is, by design, flexible. “There are a number of things you can do with private timber that you can’t do with public timber,” says Kempston. “We may decide to cut to 4.5 inch tops vs four inch tops, for example.”

The ranch consists of high plateau land with gentle terrain and rolling hills. High lead logging has never been used on the ranch and Kempston says it’s unlikely it ever will be used. “There are some small areas that are very steep that we can’t get to with bunchers or the cut-to-length equipment, but they are so steep that they are probably better left off not being logged at all.” These areas are generally few in number, and low in volume, he adds. The challenge at Douglas Lake lies not so much in the terrain, but in harvesting smaller timber in scattered areas in an efficient way.

In some stands, the volume may be as low as 70 cubic metres per hectare, only half of which they will harvest. “The overall challenge is in dealing with blocks with low volume per hectare.” Even a good Douglas fir stand may only have a volume of 150 cubic metres per hectare, meaning 50 to 75 cubic metres is harvested. One way they have been meeting the challenge is with the cut-to-length equipment. It is rubber-tired, rather than tracked, and is more manoeuvrable. It can get around more quickly to pick up trees, but also has less ground impact. Using the equipment also means that forest residuals are left in the forest to decay back into the soil, providing the additional advantage of not having to burn slash.

Along with conventional tree length harvesting, cut-to-length harvesting, using some Timberjack equipment, is also done at Douglas Lake. “We’re finding fairly good success with the cut-to-length equipment,” says Marv Kempston.

The annual harvest on timberland at the ranch varies, but is generally from 12,000 to 15,000 cubic metres annually. This fluctuates according to conditions encountered on the ranch—in some years, in fact, no harvesting is done. It has climbed substantially recently, however, with the beetle salvage operation. With a solid forest management plan as the foundation, the timberlands are also managed in a secondary way, related to what else is happening on the ranch in terms of the cattle and the recreational aspects of the ranch. Like many successful businesses, Douglas Lake strives to be diversified, with timber harvesting, the cattle operation and the ranch operation for tourists.

The ranch offers a wide range of accommodation for tourists, and recreational activities, everything from horseback riding to flyfishing adventures. When the cattle operation is down, timber sales and the tourist operation help to support it, and vice versa. Periodic meetings are held between the people heading up the different operations to make sure they are all working towards the same goals. Joe Gardner, the general manager of the ranch, oversees the complete operation, however. “Joe makes sure that operations are brought together so things are done properly all the way through.”

Kempston and his Westwood Fibre staff know the timber side of the ranch very well. “After 14 years, we know the routine of the ranch, and what the other groups are doing.” That said, they are always looking for better ways to manage the operation. One area they are keeping an eye on these days is certification, which is still going through developments of its own in the forest industry. “It doesn’t appear to be a totally defined process yet,” says Kempston. “The methodology is still evolving. It’s kind of a moving target.” He says that the forest management and timber harvesting program at Douglas Lake is large enough to get certified, but at this point in time, they are watching developments—such as which certification program, if any, emerges as the industry standard (see sidebar story on certification). “Everything is site specific, with each area just slightly different from the last site,” he says. “Our contractors have had to learn to read the stands. While we give them a prescription to start with, they need to know when that prescription might not quite fit and when to modify it a bit.”

Essentially, a good deal of the responsibility for the harvesting approach is delegated where it should be: to the contractors and their people who are working on the ground, who can see first-hand what methods will work best. Douglas Lake is currently working with three contractors. Handling the mechanical harvesting requirements are Brent Lebeau Logging, and Dale and Sons Logging, the latter operated by Bill Dale.

These days, the two contractors are working almost exclusively in harvesting mountain pine beetle killed wood. John Morrison’s Greenstone Forestry Services handles the cut-to-length side, doing thinning work. While the beetle has attacked forests further to the north in a devastating way, Kempston said it has also had an impact on their operations. “We have quite a strong salvage program in place. The beetle has been making inroads into the Princeton-Merritt area for some time now.”

Being made up entirely of private land, Douglas Lake has complete control over its harvest—there are no provincial government approvals required for their harvest program, which gives them flexibility. “There are a number of things you can do with private timber that you can’t do with public timber,” says Kempston. “We may decide to cut to 4.5 inch tops vs four inch tops, for example.” The ranch consists of high plateau land with gentle terrain and rolling hills. High lead logging has never been used on the ranch and Kempston says it’s unlikely it ever will be used. “There are some small areas that are very steep that we can’t get to with bunchers or the cut-to-length equipment, but they are so steep that they are probably better left off not being logged at all.”

These areas are generally few in number, and low in volume, he adds. The challenge at Douglas Lake lies not so much in the terrain, but in harvesting smaller timber in scattered areas in an efficient way. In some stands, the volume may be as low as 70 cubic metres per hectare, only half of which they will harvest. “The overall challenge is in dealing with blocks with low volume per hectare.” Even a good Douglas fir stand may only have a volume of 150 cubic metres per hectare, meaning 50 to 75 cubic metres is harvested.

One way they have been meeting the challenge is with the cut-to-length equipment. It is rubber-tired, rather than tracked, and is more manoeuvrable. It can get around more quickly to pick up trees, but also has less ground impact. Using the equipment also means that forest residuals are left in the forest to decay back into the soil, providing the additional advantage of not having to burn slash. The annual harvest on timberland at the ranch varies, but is generally from 12,000 to 15,000 cubic metres annually.

This fluctuates according to conditions encountered on the ranch—in some years, in fact, no harvesting is done. It has climbed substantially recently, however, with the beetle salvage operation. With a solid forest management plan as the foundation, the timberlands are also managed in a secondary way, related to what else is happening on the ranch in terms of the cattle and the recreational aspects of the ranch. Like many successful businesses, Douglas Lake strives to be diversified, with timber harvesting, the cattle operation and the ranch operation for tourists. The ranch offers a wide range of accommodation for tourists, and recreational activities, everything from horseback riding to flyfishing adventures. When the cattle operation is down, timber sales and the tourist operation help to support it, and vice versa.

Periodic meetings are held between the people heading up the different operations to make sure they are all working towards the same goals. Joe Gardner, the general manager of the ranch, oversees the complete operation, however. “Joe makes sure that operations are brought together so things are done properly all the way through.” Kempston and his Westwood Fibre staff know the timber side of the ranch very well. “After 14 years, we know the routine of the ranch, and what the other groups are doing.”

That said, they are always looking for better ways to manage the operation. One area they are keeping an eye on these days is certification, which is still going through developments of its own in the forest industry. “It doesn’t appear to be a totally defined process yet,” says Kempston. “The methodology is still evolving. It’s kind of a moving target.” He says that the forest management and timber harvesting program at Douglas Lake is large enough to get certified, but at this point in time, they are watching developments—such as which certification program, if any, emerges as the industry standard (see sidebar story on certification).

A certified log sort at an Ontario sawmill: not necessarily a simple process.

Douglas Lake Ranch is following forestry certification

Even though generally there is presently no premium for certified wood, or for using certified contractors, it may get to the point that implementing such measures may give timber suppliers—such as the Douglas Lake Ranch—an edge over their competitors. Hence the reason why ranch management has an interest in following what is going on with certification.

Down the road, it might not be a matter of a timber supplier getting an extra five dollars a cubic metre because they are certified. The carrot, so to speak, may be in becoming a preferred supplier. And it may reach the point where an operation has to be certified just to stay in business. Certification may increasingly become the standard that timber customers demand. It could get to the point where a non-certified operation might be passed over for a sale because the customer wants certified wood, and certified wood only.

And as certified timber is in more demand, mills could find it easier to deal exclusively in certified timber, rather than try to separate certified from non-certified, which can get complicated with the chain of custody process. With the chain of custody system, if a mill is processing certified and non-certified, it usually has to keep the certified separate in the yard, in the mill, in the packaging and in the shipping, so there is no chance of mixing it with non-certified. This situation could be a complete hassle for a mill.

As the certification process develops, a mill may decide to keep things simple and not buy any non-certified wood. At some point, non-certified timber could be the exception in the marketplace, and certified wood the rule, rather than the present situation which is the other way around. But the process is not necessarily simple. Even for a private land operator like Douglas Lake, certification would still require the involvement of neighboring landowners in the process, as well as a documented forest management plan (which they already have) and annual audits. And there is a cost involved. But the cost of certification will likely come down as programs become more standardized and templates are developed for their implementation.

 

Ranch is also in the heavy equipment business
The newest business for the Douglas Lake Ranch is its equipment operation, Douglas Lake Equipment. A dealer for the full line of New Holland equipment—including excavators, dozers, loaders—it has dealership locations in Kamloops, Vernon, Quesnel and Langley, BC. Its equipment line also includes Morgan Forestry Products, skidders designed and manufactured in BC.

 

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