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Best of Both Worlds

The terrain Ontario contractor Geoff Meakin is trying to achieve the best of both methods by incorporating mechanical harvesting into his existing manual cutting operation.

By Tony Kryzanowski

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The Terrain Meakin Forest Enterprises is working in north of Sault Ste. Marie is some of the toughest in Canada, with most of the harvesting taking place in rough or very rough ground, including huge boulders (left). Mechanical harvesting for Meakin is carried out by two Timberjack machines, a 2618 and 608L, both equipped with Timbco 33-inch bar saw heads.

At first glance, Geoff Meakin’s logging operation seems unique — he’s daring to mechanically harvest marked hardwood in extremely demanding terrain, with government and industry watchdogs on the lookout for any excuse to point out environmental infractions.

But given the breadth of environmental regulations in British Columbia, greater public scrutiny of logging activity on the eastern slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, and new regulations governing harvesting in Ontario’s hardwood forests, Meakin’s experiences on Crown land near Lake Superior are proving to be valuable.

Logging activity in the transitional forest zone north of Sault Ste. Marie represents an interesting example of successful harvesting methods in a region governed by difficult environmental and regulatory challenges. Greater public access coupled with greater environmental aware-ness are creating a new breed of logging contractor, possessing the intelligence and wits to somehow eke out a profit within a regulatory maze.

If this logging operation sounds financially risky, it is. To counterbalance his challenging marked hardwood operation, Meakin has diversified his business to include a traditional cut-to-length (CTL) operation on a large tract of privately held land where commercial harvesting rules apply, as well as a clearcut operation in a jackpine and spruce forest further north- east of Sault Ste. Marie. His CTL equipment includes a Timberjack 608 carrier with a 750 LogMax harvester/processor head. Wood is forwarded to roadside using a 1210 Timberjack six-wheel drive forwarder. In the clearcut operations, his subcontractor uses a Tigercat feller buncher as well as a Cat feller buncher.

Meakin may be restricted by his close proximity to a challenging wood resource, but he has not committed all his resources to one risky harvesting endeavour and that just makes good business sense.

The latest trend among hardwood logging contractors, primarily as a survival mechanism, is to replace manual harvesting crews with mechanical harvesters. Meakin, a 30-year veteran of the forest industry, has faced the same challenge. He understands that while forestry regulations have become more stringent as timber resources have tightened up, he must adapt or shut the doors.

Meakin Forest Enterprises Limited has gone further, however, and is doing more than simply replacing men with machines. On paper, economics heavily favours traditional manual harvesting — especially in severe terrain with the spectre of stringent environmental regulations — in tandem with a mechanical harvester.

Maybe this is the happy medium between mechanical and manual harvesting that the industry has sought, particularly in hardwood forests or environmentally sensitive areas of the boreal forest.

The major complaint of contractors regarding manual harvesting is the dwindling supply of skilled professional chain-saw operators, and the continued high exposure to job hazards. "The pool gets ever smaller as we continue to become an urban society moving away from the rural farming communities from which our industry has historically drawn its front-line workers," says Meakin. "Like it or not, young people are more inclined to be educated for jobs in the computer industry than jobs as cutters in the forest industry."

The biggest obstacles to attracting manual cutters are the working conditions, he says, pointing to perennial problems encountered in the cut block, such as black flies, cold temperatures, hazardous working conditions, rain, and waist-deep snow.

It’s easier to find someone to operate a mechanical harvester than it is to find a good chainsaw operator, especially considering the features now common in mechanical harvester cabs.

Assisting him in running the family business is his son, Kevin, and what Meakin describes as a very upbeat management team. They have encountered two common mechanical harvesting problems in a hardwood setting—a lack of what they feel is a proven harvester /processor head for use in large diametre hardwood stands and mechanical harvester mobility limitations on extreme slopes and very rough terrain.

The terrain north of Sault Ste. Marie is some of the toughest in Canada, with 80 per cent of the harvesting taking place in rough or very rough ground. This includes huge boulders, bogs, and steep slopes. Plus, the east shore of Lake Superior encounters severe weather, with especially heavy snowfall.

Meakin Forest Enterprises uses a Timberjack 2618 carrier equipped with a Timbco 33-inch bar saw head in their marked hardwood operations, which they prefer over a circular saw head because it is cheaper and lighter. They have just added a brand new Timberjack 608L carrier, also equipped with a Timbco 33-inch bar saw. It was the second commercial unit off Timberjack’s assembly line.

"Mechanical harvesting in marked hardwood is not like the evolution of feller bunchers in the softwood industry in a full-tree clearcut application where immediate savings were readily attain-able due to the huge increase in productivity," says Meakin. "Cost savings have been a struggle in the hardwoods."

To achieve production targets, cable skidders are still an essential piece of the puzzle. The terrain would provide an extreme challenge to any forwarder on the market today. Yet the continued use of skidders in a setting where minimal damage is a government and industry priority has raised some environmental issues.

"With regard to trunk and root damage, all I can say is that we are working on this aspect. It seems to be a skidding problem and not a felling problem," says Meakin, referring to residual tree damage. From that perspective there are certain issues to be addressed, but there are environmental benefits in terms of reduced road and trail building.

"Road building often starts one or two weeks ahead of harvesting and the amount of road needed for up to eight tradition-al gangs to be placed in their own patches is great," says Meakin. "With mechanization, we can concentrate on one patch at a time. There is a very real saving in skidding trail requirements as the skidders use the same trails as the harvester. Yes, we still build main up trails, but not as often."

Meakin’s harvester pulls tree length timber to the harvester track, which then doubles as the skid trail. The trees are left in an elevated position for choking. The harvester works the block front to back in strips as topography dictates, thus enabling skidder operators to balance long and short skids. Two cable skidders follow the feller buncher. The tree length timber is skidded to roadside and merchandised as logs, bolts and pulp. Meakin has adopted this style of logging partly out of necessity and partly because of his desire to achieve or exceed environmental standards.

Because he is required to harvest all marked trees, manual cutters still play an important role in his operation to supplement the production of the mechanical harvester, or to enhance its performance. "Any marked trees missed or in an uncuttable location for the 2618 and 608L are cut by the topper or skidder operator," says Meakin. Placing the manual chainsaw operator in a supplementary or support role reduces his exposure to such aspects as adverse weather and unsafe conditions.

"We have found that mechanical felling production is not nearly as affected by the snow depth or bad weather as is manual felling," says Meakin. Yet, the chainsaw operator has found his niche within this operation and will continue to play an important role in it. "The nimble cutter has an advantage in rough terrain." Meanwhile, mechanical harvesting allows the company to achieve production targets.

 


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