Quebec's Alliance Forest Products is taking an alternative harvesting approach with its mosaic system.
By Tony Kryzanowski
Canadian society is often referred to as a cultural mosaic-as opposed to a melting pot-and the forest industry can now say that mosaic logging is part of the Canadian woodlands picture. With the efforts of Alliance Forest Products north of Lac St Jean, Quebec and Weyerhaeuser in Grande Prairie, Alberta, mosaic logging is also taking place in both official languages. Alliance has a large presence in the Lac St Jean region, with the company's largest sawmill in Mistassini, another in nearby St-Felicien and a small sawmill in Girardville.
These mills are supplied with timber harvested from a common area north of Mistassini, 1.4 million hectares of boreal forest. The company harvests 12,000 hectares per year or approximately one per cent of this total common area. It is composed of about 75 per cent black spruce, 15 per cent balsam fir and 10 percent jackpine. A small amount of birch and poplar is harvested on the southern fringe of the area and is sent to third party sawmills and OSB manufacturers.
Alliance purchased the Lac St Jean area sawmills and harvesting rights from Domtar in 1994. However, Pierre Cormier, forest harvesting manager for the Lac St Jean region, says woodlands personnel were investigating alternative harvesting methods as far back as 1990. The company's objective was to find a harvesting method that is more harmonious with the environment and more acceptable to other forest users than the conventional block-by-block clearcut approach.
At about the same time, Alliance began an aggressive reforestation program. Planners tried to implement a strip harvesting and forest corridor approach to avoid the aesthetic appearance of large cutblocks, but experienced a problem with excessive blow down. What they settled on in 1995 was a mosaic approach that involved considerable input from the area's many stakeholders, with 180-foot wide corridors connecting the remaining forested land. After the first cut-where 47 per cent of the merchantable wood is clearcut in a mosaic pattern-Alliance waits 10 to 15 years before returning to harvest the remainder of the block.
This harvesting schedule gives natural regen and seedlings the opportunity to grow to about 12 feet following the first cut, before the remaining mature trees are harvested. With this approach, the area is never completely devoid of forestland. Also in 1995, Alliance began a transition to achieve 50 per cent harvesting production using cut-to-length (CTL) equipment. In French, it is referred to as "multi-functional" equipment.
Cormier is convinced that the mosaic forest management method is the correct approach for their situation. "With this kind of harvesting approach, it is much easier to have harmony with hunters, fishermen, trappers, ski-doers, and birdwatchers," he says. "It is also good for wildlife and for hydrology." To further enhance its approach, Alliance decided this year to triple the size of its corridors from 180 feet wide to 600 feet wide.
This method is well within government regulations. According to those regulations, Alliance has the right to harvest all the wood in a prescribed area, leaving 180-foot corridors and a small buffer around water bodies. The company's efforts have not gone unnoticed, as it has received both national and regional awards for its mosaic forest management approach.
It recently received an award from Wildlife Habitat Canada, the Forest Stewardship Recognition Award, and a regional award called the GALA Innovation Bois. Cormier says there is no doubt that computer technology has had a major impact on their ability to design these highly complex mosaic-harvesting patterns. The computer programs they use are Arc Info and Arc View. "The first step we take in our design process is to make a plan with roads everywhere," says Cormier. "Then we choose which roads we will actually cut.
There is a lot more road building and bridge installation with this method." Since Alliance is harvesting natural stands-versus plantation-every planning step starts from scratch. Therefore, the company invests about $3.5 million per year in main road building, which increases its harvesting costs more than $2 per cubic metre versus a conventional system. In 1995, the company began production with its first CTL system. To date, it has 13 CTL systems in operation and 10 tree length systems.
Cormier says the company chose to make a significant investment in CTL because it felt that fibre quality would improve. It also believed that CTL harvesting operations would result in less soil damage because branches can function as a mat for its harvester/processors. Leaving indigenous cones in the cutblock also encourages natural regeneration. "It's easier to do a good job with a CTL system," says Cormier.
But what has really made Alliance's transition to CTL a success-where it may have failed in some other jurisdictions-is the company's relationship with its contractors. On the surface, it appears to meet everyone's objectives and may be a method that other companies may want to consider. Unlike other companies where contractors are hired based on their ability to deliver a certain volume of wood within a specified time frame and at a certain price in either tree length or short wood increments, all of Alliance's contractors are employees of the company.
Although all harvesting operations personnel are employees, some own the equipment and receive additional remuneration based on the equipment's production. Wages to operate the equipment are deducted from the production payment. Each CTL crew has five members. The equipment operates 24 hours a day, five days a week from about May to the following February 1, when snow accumulations of more than four feet begin to make harvesting impossible.
Obviously, the owner has a stake in the equipment operating as productively as possible. The company wants good production, but is also concerned that its environmental and public relations objectives are met. Therefore, the owner has the option of operating the harvesting equipment himself or providing an operator of his own choosing for one shift, with the company hiring the second operator.
Rounding out the crew are two forwarder operators and someone responsible for repairs and maintenance. The contractor also owns the forwarder. Cormier says that typically the owner will take on the mechanical duties, appoint one operator, with Alliance employing the remaining three crew members. Alliance has been extremely careful to maintain good relations with its employees during the transition to cut-to-length harvesting.
On average, the company has trained three contractors per year in CTL operation, offering them a nine-week course that takes place typically during spring break up. No one is excluded. In fact, the company recently trained a 62-year-old employee who had spent 30 years in a conventional feller buncher environment. Cormier says Quebec is renowned for offering a Cadillac work environment for its forest industry employees.
He notes that they have virtually no employee or contractor turnover. Meanwhile, the biggest problem for many companies in some other parts of Canada is finding and keeping quality contractors and operators. Operating a CTL system is more costly from a harvesting perspective, adding about $2.50 per cubic metre over conventional logging. The benefit is realized at the mill where there is no need for slashing, although the Alliance mill in St-Felicien has had to make a significant investment in its sawmill to complement both the CTL harvesting in the bush and its recently installed high production small log line.
It spent about $7 million to completely remodel its infeed area. Cormier acknowledges that the company's harvesting approach in the Lac St Jean region is an expensive system and a system that forestry planners must continually promote within their own company in the face of challenges from cost-conscious accountants. They have had to compromise.
The original plan was for a three phase mosaic pattern, but in order to ensure that there was an adequate wood supply to the mills, it was adjusted to a two-phase program. "We have to fight year after year to maintain the mosaic," says Cormier. "We are proud of what we have done here." He is confident that science will help justify the extra expense. Students from Laval University are conducting studies on the environmental impact Alliance's mosaic approach is having. Those results will become known in about 2004 when the mosaic approach will have been established for about 10 years.
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