On the day the Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation celebrated its 20th anniversary by planting its 10.5-millionth tree, I was given an extensive tour of part of the operation around the Key Forest Service Road. It provided insight into not only RCFC, but forestry practice as a whole.
About 40 kilometres north of Revelstoke along Highway 23, there’s a sign letting you know when you enter Tree Farm License 56 – “Community owner and operated since 1993.” The TFL is owned by the Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation.
The TFL is 120,000 hectares, most of which can’t be logged due to caribou protection, difficult access or the fact that large portions consist of treeless alpine terrain. Many people experience the area by driving up the Keystone Forest Service Road to the famous Keystone-Standard Basin trail. Others will have seen it from the Goldstream River, or driven up Downie Creek and perhaps over to the distant reaches of Sorcerer Creek.
On a fairly typical Revelstoke day in late-May, when the clouds flowed ominously and you were never sure if it was going to start raining or be sunny, I headed north with Mike Copperthwaite, Kevin Bollefer and Geoff Battersby of RCFC. The day was initially pitched as a photo op as RCFC celebrated its 20th anniversary by planting its 10.5-millionth tree. Wanting to know more about RCFC, and forestry in general, I asked if I could get a full tour. They happily obliged.
We turned off the highway at the Key Forest Service Road, where we drove up about five kilometres to a recently-planted cut block. There we met Brenda Dyck, her assistant Ben and her dog Winston. Dyck is a Salmon Arm-based contractor who runs the silviculture program for RCFC and several other regional forestry operations.
Dyck has been in forestry for more than 30 years and has run her consulting company since 1991. She looks after the silviculture for RCFC, meaning everything that takes place after logging, such as site preparation, planting, and brushing.
“After these guys mow them down, I come out and I see if we can look after it without doing any preparation with a machine or anything,” she told me. “Then I decide the species that go on to the blocks based on what came off it and what we think would do best, with climate change and all those things.”
She hires the contractors – Revelstoke-based Fireweed Mountain Silviculture and Sundance Forest Management – who do the actual planting. “I try to plant a few trees a year so I stay sympathetic,” Dyck told me later when we sat down for lunch.
A few years ago, RCFC was looking to reduce the costs of its silviculture practice, which then ran about $1 million. A request for proposals was sent out and a joint bid by Dyck and Azimuth Forestry won out. Copperthwaite credited them with saving RCFC about $400,000 per year, while improving silviculture results.
“We’d never done mounding until Brenda came here,” he said, noting one of the improvements she’d brought to the operation.
There are a number of factors that go into what trees to plant, such as the elevation, aspect and the dryness of the soil. They will also look what existed on the stand in the past and try to plant a similar and diverse mix of cedar, hemlock, spruce, fir and others.
The trees that are planted are grown at a nursery for two years before they’re put in a ground, so Dyck will work with RCFC to see where they plan on cutting so she knows what to grow. Hopefully they don’t change plans because seeds are chosen to be planted within a certain elevation and distance from where they were collected, she said. “We’re really specific as to which trees we put where.”
Dyck said they try to get the tree planters on site as quickly as possible after the cutting is done, that way trees can be planted before the natural brush takes over.
The day of my visit the tree planting crews were a ways off in the remote Sorcerer Creek area of the TFL. They already planted the block we were in, though they left a spot for us to fill in with the milestone tree, and a few others for good measure. Planters earned $0.22 per tree for this block, Dyck said, and they move up and down the blocks quickly to maximize their income in the short planting season. A strong worker will plant well over 1,000 trees per day. Mike, Kevin and I planted a few trees (without pay) and moved on.
Dyck will return over the years to check on the site, see how the trees are doing and if the area needs brushing. Generally, about four trees are planted for every one that survives, and about 1,600 trees are planted per hectare.
RCFC has cut about 1.1-million trees in its 20 years and planted about 10.5-million. Part of that is because of the survival rate, and part is because there was a silviculture backlog when RCFC purchased the TFL from Westar in 1993.
Cut blocks, from start to finish
We left the cut block and drove further up the mountainside to a another block where the Ministry of Forests was conducting a long-term study on the effects of climate change on trees (that study will be explored next week, in part three of this series). On the way up, as we passed along a road rutted out with water bars, I asked Kevin Bollefer and Mike Copperthwaite to run me through the process of cutting down a stand of trees.
Bollefer got himself a biology degree at the University of Victoria before entering forestry. In 1997 he wound up with a job doing cut block layout with Azimuth Forestry and Mapping in Revelstoke and started taking correspondence courses to become a Registered Professional Forester. He did contract work for RCFC and ski run layout for Revelstoke Mountain Resort before being hired on as the operations manager with RCFC.
The logging process begins with the Revelstoke Higher Level Plan, the legal document that sets out exactly what can and can’t be done on the land. Based on that plan, RCFC has mapped out exactly what can be cut inside the TFL, and they have also done an inventory of standing timber. “I’ve also walked and driven around enough areas that I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s where,” Bollefer said.
When laying out a series of cut blocks, he will try to group a few in one area. He will also chose areas both near and far from Highway 23 – that way harvesting costs, which are cheaper the closer you get to the highway, are balanced out. It also means they won’t use up all the easy-to-access timber now and be stuck with higher costs in the future. “Typically if you take a good block, you’re going to pay a very high stumpage, so it makes sense to balance that off by maybe not taking such a good block (too),” he said.
They will also talk to industry partner Downie Timber to see what the market is demanding
Once the blocks are chosen, First Nations will be notified for comment. Then, layout crews go in, figure out where the roads should go and how the timber should be harvested. They cruise the timber and measure out every tree, marking down the species, height, diametre and any issues with the tree. On steeper ground, an avalanche assessment might be conducted. Then the data is compiled.
“That gives me a volume of timber in that block, and that’s where I put a number of different blocks together to create a permit.” said Bollefer.
The permit then goes to the government, who will calculate the stumpage rate – the amount RCFC pays out for every tree. “Once we get it and they approve it and all the mapping gets completed, we get our cutting permit and we’re good to go,” said Bollefer.
The logging crews will then come in and cut down the trees, either with CATS, or using cable set-ups. Green Timber Contracting and Two Guy Logging, and Henderson Logging did the bulk of the falling in 2011–12, according to the report for that year. The experimental cut block we were in was logged by Jim Scott of Two Guys Logging using his feller buncher. A bit later we would visit another area that Scott logged.
After the trees are cut, they get brought down to the landing, where they are de-limbed and sorted depending on their destination.
“Generally we know where some will go to,” Copperthwaite said. “Generally we try to figure out most of the stuff ahead of time and some stuff we bring in to our log sort yard.”
Then, Brenda Dyck will move in and begin work to restore the block for the future, where it will be logged again in some 80–100 years.
I was hoping to see some logging in action, but there was none going on during my visit.
We drove lower down the mountain, to a spot where the forest thinned. “The forest seems more open here,” I noted.
“That’s exactly where we’re taking you next,” replied Bollefer. He pulled the truck over and we started walking through a nice, open forest – the kind that would make for great tree skiing if it were a bit steeper. The remains of recently-cut trees were scattered about and morel mushrooms were emerging from the earth. Freshly-planted trees were sprouting under the canopy.
“The concept here is just thinning the forest, trying to get more growth on fewer stems so that increases your piece size and typically increases your value,” said Bollefer. In even plainer terms, what RCFC did was selectively thin an area of forest. The bigger trees were pulled out, allowing younger trees to keep growing, hopefully adding significant value in the future. Bollefer pointed to a small cedar tree. “It makes sense to leave those trees, to grow more wood on those trees faster, and come in 15 years time and harvest that tree as a 70-foot pole and we’ll almost triple our money,” he said. “It’s value over volume.”
Before the logging was done, Bollefer walked the area, marking every tree he wanted cut. Jim Scott from Two Guys Logging was contracted to harvest the trees, and he mostly followed the plan.
We walked up and down through the area and Bollefer inspected the seedlings that were planted last fall. The tracks of the feller buncher were evident, but it still felt like a forest. Moreso than anywhere else, Bollefer and Copperthwaite spoke proudly of the work they did in this area.
“You asked how community forests are somewhat different than others – this is a prime example of how we are doing something different,” said Copperthwaite, who came to RCFC after a lengthy career in the private forestry sector said. “This is looking at 20 years from now. There’s going to be more value here than if we logged it today. If you were short-term thinking, you would have clear-cut this.”
However, he noted, conditions have to be just right to do this kind of selective logging. For one, the area was relatively flat. It was also very wet, making for faster growth. It also had an abundance of cedar and spruce – trees that grow well in shady areas. You wouldn’t be able to do this if the ground were steeper, or if the forest was mostly fir.. “You would be impacting the growth of the fir,” said Copperthwaite. “It doesn’t grow under these shady conditions.”
In 15–20 years, whoever is in running RCFC will be able to come in and harvest the bigger trees out of the block. The process can continue every 15–20 years, as long as the people in charge see value in it.
Stumping and seeding
The final stop of the tour looked like a disaster zone. The stumps of all the trees in the cut block were uprooted to expose them to the air and kill the Armillaria root rot that had infected them. The idea was that new seedlings wouldn’t get infected by the disease.
We dropped off some maps for a contractor who was working at the top of the block. Brenda Dyck was just pulling away as we turned around to park. She radioed back to us – a grizzly bear crossed the road near where we were going. When we got out, Bollefer and Copperthwaite strapped on their high-vis vests, with bear spray in the pockets. I had… my camera?
We walked slowly amidst the stumps, branches and left-over trees. Here, instead of planting seedlings, crews had simply gone in and spread seeds about to encourage new growth. The overturned stumps create a natural seed bed for trees to go in, Bollefer explained. The area is dry and rocky, so its easier to spread seeds than to have a tree-planting crew come and try to dig through the hard soil.
“Those roots will get in between the rocks where it’s really hard to plant a plug,” said Bollefer. “Whether they survive long-term, we don’t know.”
“It’s something we’re trying on this one little area,” said Copperthwaite.
The seeding was done three weeks ago and members of the RCFC Board of Directors were invited up to take part. There was already signs of growth.
We returned to the road through a patch of trees that was left standing. Copperthwaite pointed out some trees with low-lying branches. In an ideal world, those branches would be pruned, making for cleaner, higher-value trees. Even though they think long-term, no pruning is done because of the cost and the fact the return is too far off for it to make economic sense. They are hoping for government incentives that would make it more feasible to conduct pruning and other practices that could add long-term value. “Its costly and we don’t get enough recognition to do that,” said Copperthwaite.
Sorting the logs
Our final stop of the day was RCFC’s log-sort yard just south of the Revelstoke Dam. We pulled in behind a piece of heavy machinery that had been towed back to town. At a busy time of year, the yard would be stacked with logs. On this day, there were only a few scattered piles – about 500 cubic metres, compared to 10,000 when it’s busy. There were stacks of fir, cedar and hemlock pulp logs that will eventually be brought to Shelter Bay for transportation to the Zelgoff Celgar pulp mill in Castlegar.
This is where RCFC brings the logs that don’t go directly to customers. The logs are sorted by species, quality and size, and then they’re put on the market and sold. “It’s an interesting part of the job, knowing what things are worth, and who you can sell them to,” said Copperthwaite.
A pulp log goes for about $40 per cubic-metre and a high-end cedar log will sell for more than $200 per cubic-metre, though prices, especially for cedar – RCFC’s money-tree – have decline substantially over the years. The average selling price for a log has fallen to $93.10 per cubic metre in 2011–12 compared to $130.44 in 2007–2008, though the price has gone up somewhat the past two years. RCFC’s operating costs are about $80 per cubic metre.
Copperthwaite will advertise logs on RCFC’s website and will negotiate with customers on the value of a log. They used to auction them off, but when the economy slowed, some customers would try to low-ball on auction, hoping to get a steal, so they stopped doing that.
By this point I was suffering from information overload. I had several hours of recordings that translated into 25 pages worth of notes. Part three of this series will appear next week and will look at what the future holds, including the economic outlook and what climate change could mean for forestry.