Forestry sector’s truckers face growing challenges

by Eric Berard

Trucking operations, usually owner-operators and small fleets, have to compete with sawmills for a new generation of workers.

MONTREAL, Que. – Canada’s forestry sector is worth an estimated $20 billion a year, but those who haul logs from the forest to sawmill are experiencing the weight of factors from wildfires to lumber tariffs.

Wildfires make lumber buyers nervous about supply disruptions, CIBC World Markets analyst Hamir Patel said last August. And Global Affairs Canada reports that anti-dumping and countervailing duty rates imposed by the U.S. represent an average 18.9% increase in the price at which Canadian lumber is sold south of the border.

Lower revenues from our neighbors to the south have proven to be significant enough for Ottawa to inject $251.3 million into the forestry sector over the next three years. About $64 million has been allotted to the Expanding Market Opportunities Program to increase and diversify opportunities in offshore markets and expand wood use in non-residential and mid-rise construction.

Market hiccups mean more than a simple shift in freight volumes alone, however.

As logging revenues drop, investments into bush roads tend to drop with them. And it’s a situation that log haulers experience first hand. The rougher roads inevitably take their toll on equipment, says Mario Beaulieu of the Association Nationale des Camionneurs Artisans Inc. (ANCAI), which represents 800 independent log haulers in Quebec.

The same logic applies across the country. “You can definitely tell when the market is down,” says Jeremy Kuharchuk, director partner of Blue Valley Trucking, from Vanderhoof, B.C.

That’s when the roads can even be used.

Depending on weather conditions, logging trucks already tend to be limited to just 38 to 45 weeks of work a year at the best of times. It’s seasonal work, requiring many of those with the specialized equipment and related permits to find other loads when the spring thaws begin.

“When the logging is slow in the first part of the summer, we’re looking at other jobs and small contracts to fill the void,” says Trevor Lidtkie owner of Trevor Lidtkie Logging and Custom Bulldozing in Palmer Rapids, Ont. When not hauling logs or maintaining the logging roads themselves, for example, he runs heavy machinery for private construction or excavation jobs.

The same tractors used to haul logs are often repurposed for road construction or hauling aggregates when work slows, says Glen Légère, senior manager – roads and infrastructure at FPInnovations, a forestry think tank with locations in Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver.

The forestry-based equipment is certainly ready for heavier loads, typically built and powered to handle gross vehicle weights above 120,000 lb. when on the private logging roads.

“Payload is everything in log hauling,” says Jan Michaelsen, lead researcher – transport at FPInnovations.

It doesn’t mean “heavier is better” when it comes to spec’ing, however. There is still a place for lightweight components that can increase payload without compromising strength.

“You always have room to put in more wood, and that’s what a lighter truck allows you to do,” Michaelsen says. The typical log-hauling trucks that he comes across have seen tare weights shrink by 4,000 to 6,000 lb. in the last 10 to 15 years alone.

As for the third drive axles that might have been spec’d for slick conditions in forestry applications, they can allow for higher payloads on select public highways as well.

Specialized skills shortage

The equipment itself isn’t the only thing that’s specialized. Log-hauling operations are also struggling to find drivers who have the skills needed for the difficult terrains.

Beaulieu has seen highway drivers who have 25 years of experience on paved highways unable to handle forestry roads.

“It really takes experienced, qualified drivers to haul logs,” he says, referring to the way drivers have to “feel” whether they can climb a hill or risk slipping to the bottom. Even once on the other side, the steep grades require careful skip shifting. The curves can be so tight that one wheel can be hanging in mid air.

The work schedules can scare away other potential candidates.

“To get a 20- or 25-year-old kid to get up at three in the morning to go get a load of logs is a struggle,” Kuharchuk says. To compound matters, the same youth are recruited by sawmills where they can make $30 an hour on predictable eight-hour shifts.

“There’s a competition that’s not favorable to the industry we’re in. It’s something we have to work on,” he says.

“We find young guys that want to come,” Kuharchuk adds. But it comes at a price that small log hauling businesses — mostly owner-operators or relatively small fleets — can’t always afford. “We don’t have money in our rates to train people.”

That presents a challenge for the future. The average log hauler in Quebec is now more than 60 years old, Beaulieu says.

New blood is needed, and the forestry industry as whole relies on it, noted Trucking HR Canada in its analysis of the latest federal budget. “Aside from the CTA [Canadian Trucking Alliance], the forest products sector has been one of the most vocal advocates at the federal level on the driver shortage, and the economic challenges it is experiencing as a result.”

Future logging trucks could rely on autonomous controls, such as those displayed in the T-Log concept vehicle from Sweden’s Einride.

Technical solutions, autonomous controls

Perhaps the trucks themselves offer a solution.

Sweden’s Einride recently unveiled a completely autonomous concept truck known as the T-Log. Closer to home, FPInnovations’ PIT Group recently tested platooning in a forestry setting.

The platooning doesn’t offer aerodynamic advantages on bush roads, but some industry watchers are wondering about the possibilities that could be realized with an experienced human driver leading an automated platoon.

“When we look at upcoming years with the number of drivers who are going to retire, the shortage will only get worse. That’s why the forest industry is so open-minded about research on platooning and backing us on it,” Légère says.

Michaelsen sees other opportunities in short hauls, using automated equipment to complete repetitive, short distances. Imagine a loader being able to call on an autonomous truck whenever it’s needed, and simply sending it back to a company yard for unloading.

One of the biggest challenges to such technology is a lack of communication-related infrastructure in remote areas, he says. Human log haulers can use VHF or FM airwaves to communicate their positions on narrow bush roads to avoid collisions, but higher tech is needed to transmit data.

“The ultimate goal is to get the same level of communication service in the forest as in urban areas. This means cell phone and internet access,” Michaelsen says. “I think we’ll get there sooner than later.”

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