Ontario's Skene family has a well-rounded forestry approach that takes it all in- harvesting, mill and treeplanting operations.
By Dave Lammers
Alexander Skene was a farmer. Jack Skene owned a general store, while his son Tom sold farm equipment. Today, Bill Skene runs a logging business and a reforestation company. But over the last 104 years, all of the Skenes have had one thing in common: they have all been into sawmilling. Today, diversification of the family business remains key to the success of Skene Lumber and Sawmill, a division of Oxdrift Tractor Sales Ltd, the latter named after Tom Skene's former business.
The operation is still located on the TransCanada Highway west of Dryden, Ontario in Oxdrift, on the site of the family's early sawmills. It now has three divisions, including OTS Logging and Moose Creek Reforestation. The mill caters mostly to local builders, producing both rough and finished construction lumber. It also turns out specialty value-added products including knotty pine and V-joint panel board and squared beams up to 12x12 for timber frame construction.
Owners of cottages-or "camps" as they're called in northwestern Ontario- make up much of Skene Lumber's customer base, as well as tourist camp owners. That base also includes anyone else with a small building project in an area that is largely cottage country. Annually, the mill produces 1.5 million to two million board feet. Owner Bill Skene has made a lot of changes to the operation since taking over the business from his father, Tom, in 1991.
In 1993, Bill purchased new sawmill equipment that is more automated than the family operated in the past. "When we first took over the business, we were running an older mill that had been in the family since the 1940s," Skene says. Skene Lumber upgraded to a new Desjardin circular saw/carriage operation, purchased from Quebec, as well as a used edger. The new mill, which includes a Prentice loader and a Morbark peeler, has greatly improved the quality of the product, Skene says.
In 1995, the company bought a L90B Volvo loader for the yard. "The new mill equipment and the loader were a big, big improvement, which really increased productivity," Skene says. "With the Volvo loader, it's good to have a new machine to rely on, especially with our cold climate." However, the biggest change has been the establishment and growth of the silvicultural side of the operation which, according to Bill, got its start "one slow summer"in 1984 when he took on a subcontract to plant 60,000 trees.
Moose Creek Reforestation now plants more than three million trees a year, using helicopters to reach remote areas of the Dryden Forest and the Whiskey Jack Forest in the Kenora area. Moose Creek employs up to 60 people in the spring and summer months, mostly university students, and is one of Abitibi- Consolidated's two major silvicultural contractors in the Kenora area.
The company also has a contract with the Dryden Forest Management Company (DFMC)-a private co-operative consisting of logging contractors that manage the Crown unit. The co-op took over from the Ministry of Natural Resources, which opted out of forest management three years ago. Moose Creek does treeplanting and regeneration surveys for the DFMC, as well as other improvement work, including manual thinning and releasing. Skene explains that the company started out making day trips, carrying equipment and trees into the bush by hand.
As the number of trees increased and the planting became more remote, it was necessary to set up camps closer to the planting sites. "Sometimes the access is so difficult that it's more effective to use helicopters," Skene says. "We're planting a lot more trees and it's actually gotten easier over the years with more experienced personnel and all the machinery." Sister company OTS Logging harvests roughly 13,000 cubic metres of wood a year, as a shareholder in the DFMC. Logging is contracted out, mostly to other DFMC members. "One shareholder will look after the feller bunching, another will do the grapple skidding. And the road building, slashing and hauling is done by another," Skene explains.
Saw logs go to Skene's own sawmill and residuals go to Weyerhaeuser in Dryden, as well as Abitibi-Consolidated in Kenora. Skene also purchases a quantity of saw logs from other contractors for the Oxdrift sawmill. All hardwood is chipped in the bush. Skene Lumber has its own wood truck that is used to deliver firewood-another side business which also makes use of the byproducts of the sawmill. Diversification is nothing new to the family business. "I guess it's been that way for years," Skene says. "My great uncle Alexander was a farmer at heart and he did the sawmilling to produce lumber to build houses in the community for the pioneers. My grandfather, Jack, had a local general store and got into the sawmilling and logging business mainly to give local people employment in the winter time. This also enabled them to keep their account
s paid at the store. And my father, Tom, and his partner Raymond Pateman were diversified in much the same way in the farm machinery business and the sawmill business." The first Skene sawmill was built in 1897 on the banks of the Wabigoon River in Dryden-across the river from the present Weyerhaeuser stud mill. Alex Skene was sent to the area by the agriculture minister of the day, John Dryden-for whom the city is now named. "It was a very basic carriage mill driven by a stationary steam engine moved in by rail," Skene says. "Everything was manual. All the log turning was done by hand. They moved the mill to the wood piles instead of the wood piles to the mill.
They would move the mill every day or two." In the 1930s, Jack Skene started operating a portable sawmill in Oxdrift on the same site where today's mill is located. Jack also bought and sold pulp wood, loading railcars in Oxdrift and nearby Minnitaki that were shipped to Kenora. The 1940s saw the formation of JAN Timber, a partnership between Jack Skene, Allan Shaw and Norm McMillan. Raymond Pateman and Tom Skene took over the Oxdrift mill in the 1960s, focusing on the production of rail ties as well as lumber. They also formed a farm equipment dealership, Oxdrift Tractor Sales Ltd-a name Bill, who came into the business in 1977, has been reluctant to give up. "I'm proud to be doing the same type of business my grandfather and my great uncle did," Skene says. "It also makes me proud that I'm not only in the logging and sawmilling-I'm also in the reforestation end of it."
He adds there are a lot more regulations since the days when his great uncle and grandfather were in the business. The biggest challenge, he says, is in the area of logging where the Ministry of Natural Resources has introduced new guidelines for block layout and watercrossing, as well as snag management guidelines that have loggers leaving full-sized trees to sustain the animal habitat, including that of martens and woodpeckers. "At one time we would be fined for leaving a snag in the bush," Skene says. "Now we have to leave a certain amount per hectare which makes it a concern. It's not so bad when you're in a full tree operation with big machines. But we do have concerns for the silviculture workers. We have to plant these areas and watch that we don't endanger those workers.
It's a lot more complicated than it used to be." And while he sees the sawmill as a mainstay of the operation-and a Skene family tradition he plans to carry on-the greatest potential for growth is in the area of reforestation, he says. Skene Lumber, which has 13 employees, doesn't export any of its lumber -though some of its product is sold out of province. "I don't see our sawmill growing a lot. There's only so many logs out there and so many sawmills, and we're not going to be able to increase in those areas that much. We have a certain amount of timber that's destined for our mill. Reforestation-we see that as an area where we can really increase our production. "Over the past 10 years, it's been a challenge running the sawmill and logging operation, and I've enjoyed it. It also has been rewarding to have silviculture
as part of the company because I have the satisfaction of knowing I am putting back more than I am taking. This will ensure a future for my family in sawmilling." _ Skene Lumber sawyer Ryan Albert (above). Thanks to upgrades-including a Desjardin circular saw/carriage operation-the mill now produces between 1.5 and 2 million board feet annually.
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