Loggers pine for more days on the road

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PRINCE GEORGE, B.C. – As many people fantasize about an extended summer vacation and a little bit more time to relax in the sun, factions of the forest industry are wishing the summer break would come to an end.

Log hauling has long since been recognized as a seasonal vocation and when the forest service roads shut down in the spring for upkeep, many drivers use the time off to make adjustments to their own operations.

“Everyone expects it and that’s how you plan your business,” explained Roy Nagel, general manager of the Central Interior Logging Association. “During that time maintenance can be done and if you need something new, a new cutter head or loader, you have the time to do it.”

The summer breakup for the log hauling season usually begins in the third week of March and runs until the third week of May. As the frost is coming out, the roadbed softens and the roads are closed to prevent damage. Hauling then resumes when the road is hard enough to haul on the mill’s schedule.

“It’s getting to what we’re ready to call the never-ending breakup,” said Nagel, from his Prince George office. “Here we are on Aug. 1 and a lot of loggers still aren’t out hauling. There are some out but it’s very sporadic. It was a bit of an anomaly with a revised grading system in the spring by the B.C. government; and it was announced well in advance.”

The new log grades were introduced on Apr. 1 by the Ministry of Forests and Range, in an effort to better reflect the quality of timber affected by the mountain pine beetle.

Under the old grading system, a log was assessed according to whether the tree it came from was alive or dead at the time of harvest. Under the new system, log grades are based on the log’s size and quality at the time it is scaled, or assessed.

Under the old system mountain pine beetle infested timber was being assessed as dry or dead, but the new system classified the majority of the infested timber as saw logs, in recognition of its potential to produce quality timber.

When the new grade system was announced, Ministry officials stated that the new log grades were designed so they would not significantly increase or decrease stumpage revenues to the Crown, or impact the flow of timber to processing facilities.

Previously off-grade logs were priced at $0.25 per cubic-metre. After the grade system changed the log rates ranged from $2.50 to $5.00 per cubic-metre, according to Nagel.

“They put on as many extra crews as they could and brought on more loggers, and told drivers to go flat out through January, February and March. Anticipating the cost rise they brought in every bit they could,” Nagel told Truck West. “They paid the stumpage rates at that point and some even had put up temporary storage facilities for all the extra logs. We delivered huge amounts of wood before Apr. 1.”

According to Nagel’s calculations, approximately 60%-70% of all the timber hauled during the course of the year is transported during the 11-week period from Jan. 1 to the third week of March.

“Assuming mill production stayed the same, we figured we’d be back to work in June, three or four weeks later than usual,” noted Nagel. “The mills still have a bit of wood, the dollar is stronger and some companies have scaled back days of operation. Some mills did need some wood, but it was spotty.”

One logging fleet that was able to find some work early into the summer breakup was Burke Purdon Enterprises. The company is exclusively a log hauling operation and has been based out of Prince George since 1983.

“Our first run was July 10, which is way later than normal,” noted Earl Purdon, general manager of Burke Purdon Enterprises. “The last two or three years we’ve started right after the long weekend in May. Usually we start in the first week of June.”

In the first week of August, the 29-truck fleet had 20 of its trucks running on the night shift because of a fire watch in the area.

The week prior, Purdon was able to get 27 of his trucks going for a portion of the week before getting shut off for hitting a quota.

“Right now we’re doing some loads or some runs on the highway, taking a little bit of logs to the Okanogan,” said Purdon. “That’s the advantage of me being on the phone all day looking for work. The owner/operator doesn’t have that luxury.”

But the highway runs are not economical for a logging truck and Purdon arranges that work just to keep his drivers behind the wheel.

“I try and keep a staff of 30. We have 28 guys on my list and one is a driver trainer,” he explained. “I’ve got one truck I haven’t hired a driver for. We need two more, but how do you hire someone and tell them you don’t know when they will start?”

The lack of business has had a trickle-down effect on the operation’s suppliers.

“We still haven’t opened up for our suppliers to come and re-stock our shelves,” noted Purdon. “I wouldn’t even want to put a dollar figure on it, but it’s thousands each week, maybe $50,000.”

According to an operational chart, a trucking operation will need 167 days to make a living, explained Purdon, and this year he said his fleet will be lucky if they can make it to 125 days.

“More days is all it boils down to,” he stated. “This is the driest June we’ve had on record; we could have been out there June 1. Now it’s either too hot or too wet. It’s just one extreme to the other. This volume bumping is a pain in the ass. This week they want four trucks, next week five trucks, and then four trucks; I can’t leave equipment in the yard gathering dust, it’s a waste.”

Purdon admits that the grading changes at the beginning of April may have caused some of the problems this year, but he is not optimistic it will get better in the future.

The inability to offer stable work is also making it more difficult for Purdon to retain drivers.

“A handful of guys are threatening to move away because Alberta has nice offers on the table right now. It’s just nobody wants to go to camp; that’s all that keeps them around,” he commented. “We pray, really to be honest, that they’ll come back.”

With the oil and gas industry paying premium wages, Nagel agrees that making a seasonal occupation like log hauling attractive is becoming a difficult task.

“Some of your qualified drivers will slip off to find solid work. We’re losing quality people to other industries; we’re losing them to oil and gas, and mining,” Nagel noted. “From our standpoint we would like to extend the season and keep quality workers. It seems to contrast the way the mills seem to be heading.”

The stop-and-start tendencies of the log hauling business are not unique to the Central Interior region and Nagel said on the coast they tend to call it “log-lurching.”

Looking back over the 10 years he’s been with the CILA, Nagel noted that there used to be about 290 production days in the bush and 170 days of hauling.

Whereas today, although the production days have not changed significantly, the hauling side is down to 125 to 140 days a year.

As well, during the past 10 years, trucks have been able to increase their load capacities. Once a normal load was 35 to 40 cubic-metres per truck and today most trucks haul between 65 to 70 cubic-metres of timber.

“It’s having an adverse effect on loggers as they have to buy more powerful equipment,” said Nagel. “The equation is a pretty brutal one. There are 25 to 30 days less for hauling, but you have to get bigger and more expensive equipment and that’s not including driver rates. It’s not conducive to keeping people in the industry.”

Nagel wishes this year was a one-off due to the change in the log grading system, but just like Purdon, believes that the stop-and-start trend will continue until all the stakeholders get together to work out a solution.

“The rates need to increase or there has to be an extension of the season. A lack of business stability is the overriding factor. You never know when you will start or how much you will work,” he concluded. “Our problem as an association is that we can’t seem attractive and rewardable to drivers until supply and demand helps those left. We need to find better work for our members whether it’s construction or mining or oil and gas. We need to broaden our horizons on what we do.”

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