Opting for a variety of equipment
Private land operator Darkwoods Forestry is using a variety of equipment and methods to harvest in the high elevations of BC’s Kootenay region.
By Paul MacDonald
At a time when some forest companies and landowners are heavily weighting their harvesting decisions in favour of costs, British Columbia’s Darkwoods Forestry is bucking the trend. Rather than awarding harvesting contracts on their private land to the lowest cost producer on a short-term basis, Darkwoods Forestry is just as interested in selecting logging contractors who will deliver quality services year after year. That is not to say that the operation is not cost conscious. They want competitive prices from their contractors—but they also want to ensure these contractors are committed to the land base for the long term. In a province where 96 per cent of the land is owned by the Crown, Darkwoods Forestry is a fairly rare breed: a private land operator.
Based in Nelson, in the southeastern part of the province, Darkwoods owns 56,000 hectares on the west side of the south arm of Kootenay Lake. The land was part of a grant to the Nelson & Fort Sheppard Railway in 1897. It went through the hands of half-a-dozen owners, mostly American, who struggled with harvesting in the steep terrain—85 per cent of the land is over 1,400 metres in elevation. In 1967, a German family purchased the mid-sized parcel of land and set up Darkwoods Forestry to administer it. Of the land, only 55 per cent, or 31,200 hectares is operable productive forest.
Their annual cut is 55,000 cubic metres. From 1967 to the present, Darkwoods has evolved its approach to harvesting the primarily spruce/balsam timber on the landbase. Secondary species include fir/larch/pine and cedar/hemlock. “The land is great for skiing because of its high elevations, but not so great for logging,” says Christian Schadendorf, manager of Darkwoods Forestry. The land straddles a ridge of the Selkirk Mountains, with most of it sloping down towards Kootenay Lake. Add to that about 50 alpine lakes. “We probably have more in common with BC coastal operations and their high elevations than we do with other interior areas, such as those to the north, which are relatively flat,” says Schadendorf. Besides high elevation, the Darkwoods land is in the Interior wet belt, which means a short operating season. They usually start operating in June, and are out by Christmas because of snow—up to five metres of the white stuff. Their contractors have a variety of equipment to deal with these conditions. John Baranitsky, for example, has more of a conventional BC Interior operation, with a Link-Belt 2800 unit with Denharco dangle head processor, with two Cat skidders—a tracked D5H and 518—and a Hyundai 210 log loader.
Then there are the cable operators, such as Bob Armitage and Yourri Tabauriaux. Tabauriaux, for example, has a Madill 2800 loader and a Madill 172 yarder. Darkwoods employs six other contractors, some of whom do harvesting and others who just do roadwork. “We’ve got a good range of equipment, from the skidders to small cable machines, to a long line yarder.” Generally, contractors work on only one or two shows. By and large, the equipment is about two-thirds tracked, and the rest rubber-tired. This varied equipment combination works well, says Schadendorf, but it has taken them a while to get here, he notes.
“When we started 30 years ago, it was basically an inoperable chunk of land. We learned the hard way, by experimenting, to find out what worked and what didn’t work. It took a long time, but we’ve learned how to do it cost effectively.” With that cost effectiveness must come the aforementioned quality on the part of their contractors, he adds. “We work with a small core group of contractors, most of which we’ve had for a long time. With our focus on quality, and the lean staff of Darkwoods, we can’t afford to have a lowest bidder operator approach on our land. “We need people who know what they are doing, know what we want and have the experience and mindset of an operator who is committed to our long-term ownership of the land. We are here to take care of the land.” That extends to all the contractors they use.
Local companies also handle the silvicultural side, doing the planting, weeding, spacing, and most of them have been with Darkwoods for 10 or 15 years. “They do it all,” explains Schadendorf. “That way we have the same people who planted the trees tending the trees in the years to follow. We think that is very important because they take ownership.” He notes with pride that Darkwoods was the first private operator to do planting in the region, back in the 1970s, and also the first to experiment with microsite selection planting, which has been a huge success. On the harvesting side, Darkwoods is entirely a tree-length harvesting operation for several reasons. With an older road system, it is difficult to get trucks carrying cut-to-length wood in and out to landings, and the steep terrain of course poses challenges in itself. Another consideration for Darkwoods, and ultimately for their contractors, is the investment required to make the switch to cut-to-length equipment.
Schadendorf noted that the solution for Darkwoods might lie somewhere in between. They recently saw a trial of a machine that did tree-length processing at the stump. (See story on page 28.) “We really liked that, that would be something for us.” This type of machine would reduce skidding and landing costs and also be suitable for single tree selection harvesting. Darkwoods is moving towards selection harvesting and away from clearcuts. This is especially the case in lower elevations. These lower elevations have a diversity of tree species, and there is a good chance here for the natural regeneration of valuable species, such as cedar and fir. On the other hand, this type of equipment could create slash problems on the blocks, and there are limits on how big a tree this type of equipment can handle.
This type of equipment may not be the best fit, but Darkwoods continues to look at what’s out there that might make the operations more productive. “We’re always looking at new and better ways of harvesting and getting our costs under control, so we are definitely looking at more mechanized harvesting.” Most of their wood is hauled to independent sawmill operators in the region, around Nelson and Creston. Forest giant Slocan Forest Products has had a long-term agreement, winding up this year, for first refusal on all their timber, but has opted to take only limited amounts. That timber, however, was key to the mill in Slocan going to three shifts. Darkwoods, which is only an hour or so from the US border, would like to export more timber, but is hamstrung by federal and provincial regulations. “We have a lot of timber that the domestic mills are not interested in.
They really are in no position to pay us enough for the small logs to make it worthwhile to log. They are not set up to handle it.” If these restrictions were lifted, their “operability line” could go higher up the mountains, meaning more wood could be economically harvested. “We’d like an open market for wood, period,” says Schadendorf. The company, through the Private Forest Landowners Association of BC, has been making its case to the federal and provincial governments, which have been somewhat receptive. But right now, removing export controls seems to be caught up in the bigger issue of the softwood lumber dispute with the United States.
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