March 2007 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal
ALL ABOUT ACCESS
A small, well-run sawmilling operation on BC’s Queen Charlotte Islands is producing quality products and contributing to the local economy, but it may have to shut down for one simple reason: not a lack of logs, but a lack of access to logs.
By Jim Stirling
It rains a lot on British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands. The moisture arrives in many forms, from savage storms to gentle showers. The cedar and the spruce, the hemlock, cypress and pine thrive on the rainfall. As a result, the hills and valleys are coated in a lush, green fur of forest.
Jim Abbott knows there are enough trees out there to support his sawmilling operation. His requirements are relatively modest. The problem has become getting continued access to those trees. And that means the days appear numbered for one of Canada’s outpost sawmilling operations.
Abbott is president of Abfam Enterprises Ltd, a family-owned sawmill overlooking Masset Inlet in Port Clements, BC. There are small sawmilling operations in the Yukon that are further west than Port Clements, but Abfam is the largest and longest running operation of its kind off the northwest coast. But that might be coming to a close, along with the jobs the mill provides that have long underpinned the local economy.
“As it stands, the mill will close its doors early in 2007,” declares Abbott. He claims access to the volumes of timber he requires to sustain the operation and upgrade it are being thwarted by government bureaucracy and hoarding unallocated wood supplies to satisfy future Native land claim issues.
The Abfam story has been one of enduring success on the islands where traditionally sawmilling operations have had difficulty taking root. Abbott came to the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) in the 1960s. He liked what he found. He settled in at Tlell, in the central part of Graham Island, and over the years was involved in trucking, construction and running a small sawmill on his farm.
Abfam’s major expansion came in 1984 when the BC government put two licences up for bid under its Small Business Enterprise Program. Abbott was awarded a non-renewable 10- year licence for 40,000 cubic metres annually and built the Port Clements sawmill on the strength of it. By 1994, when the licence expired, Abbott says the mill was cutting about $6 million worth of lumber and ran a payroll of about $1.5 million, most of which stayed in the Port Clements area.
Abfam has always contracted out the falling, front end loading and trucking to local companies and native Haida made up about half the work force. The two-line mill was producing up to 90,000 board feet a shift, depending on species and grade.
But it became a struggle to get sufficient wood in subsequent years, despite the addition of a planer and dry kiln that helped diversify the product line of specialty custom cut and export lumber. The last three years, the mill has lost money, says Abbott, and the hemorrhaging has to stop.
Abbott says he’s long championed a way that would help small and medium size independent sawmillers like himself. “I would like to see the Ministry of Forests add a clause to their timber sales,” he explains. The clause would make up to 15 per cent of a Timber Supply Area’s AAC available for local manufacturers with equipment to bid on.
“That would solve problems for a lot of small communities,” he observes. But therein lies the problem. Abbott says he was told by a prominent politician the main reason that—or a similar mechanism—hasn’t been introduced is because of the precedent it would set. It’s not a priority to help the little sawmillers.
And that, in turn, ties in with what Abbott believes is causing short shrift for sawmillers in his position: settling Native land claims.
Natural resources, with the forest land base prime among them, are being banked by the provincial government as part of future settlements on treaty and land use negotiations with aboriginal groups. A lot of issues surrounding timber access have to do with land claims, says Abbott, here and on the north coast. There’s an additional annoyance with the process that sticks in Abbott’s craw.
“Our government is isolating us from timber rights discussions,” he says. The government is talking with the Council of Haida Nations on the islands “government to government” behind closed doors. “It’s our government but it’s not including us,” he charges.
Intermittent timber supply has also taken its toll on Abfam’s marketing efforts. For reasons best known to itself, the provincial forest ministry administers timber sales on the islands from Chilliwack, BC. Chilliwack is in the lower Fraser River valley, not too far from Vancouver, but far removed geographically from the islands. The sales Chilliwack issues are generally small and sporadic at best, says Abbott. “A customer wanted some hemlock lumber from us for two years. Because of the timber supply, we can’t guarantee delivery for a six-month period, let alone two years,” he declares. “It’s frustrating.”
When the wood is made available, Abfam has the capability to produce a wide range of products. They include western red cedar, yellow cedar and cypress lumber for re-manufacture in BC, the US, and export markets; dried western red cedar, sitka spruce and western hemlock; and flooring, siding and tongue and groove products.
Abbott concedes his sawmill could use some modernizing. “I’d like to put in upgrades worth $2.5 million to $3.5 million, including work in areas like optimization and the headrig. Without a timber supply, it’s not going to happen.”
Abbott reckons a secure annual timber supply of 60,000 cubic metres would be ideal to keep the mill operating on a oneshift- a day basis, create up to 50 local jobs and allow for mill investment. “The wood is here,” he reiterates.
A secure timber supply would have additional benefits. Abfam would stop wasting wood residues from its sawmilling, currently going up in smoke from a beehive burner. Abbott has tried to do something positive about the problem in the past. Back in the late 1990s, Abfam spearheaded the North Island Power Cogeneration Plant. The concept was to use Abfam’s wood residues and other material from log sorts and yards to create a small wood fired utility capable of generating 6.2 MW. Such a plant would have weaned Port Clements off the diesel power generated 44 kilometres to the north in Masset and opened the door to other economic development possibilities for the area. But the project didn’t fly. The main reason, says Abbott, was the local Haida decided to investigate the power production business potential.
In 2006, Abfam was looking at pelletizing or wood briquette manufacture as a productive method of utilizing the large volumes of available wood waste.
Wouter Bax, a graduate student from The Netherlands, examined the issue as part of a research thesis. He concluded a briquetting machine line with a press to make product of different shapes and lengths offered the most viable option.
“First, the log supply should be back to its old volumes and stable again,” noted Bax.
Or as Abbott put it: “If there’s no timber supply, forget it. But with the sawmill running, it would be very viable.” But barring an 11th-hour change in circumstances, he’s not anticipating it.
Instead, he sees a sharp downsizing for Abfam, perhaps operating a log yard or dryland sort and employing maybe four or five people.
If Abfam’s Port Clements sawmill is forced to close for lack of an operable timber supply, it will conclude another sad chapter to sawmilling on Haida Gwaii. But Abfam has definitively proven through more than 20 years of operation that a well-run, local milling operation, producing quality, customized products and contributing significantly to the local economy can work. It just takes the political will to allow it to happen.
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Monday, August 06, 2007