Wind and snow ushered in the ides of March around Nakusp. Although the thermometer read warm and warmer, the snow kept falling.
On the last week before the loggers and school kids took their spring break, Jesper Nielsen, Nacfor manager, went to check out what was happening on the community forest blocks near McDonald Creek.
“This area’s called Slewiskin or McDonald Creek,” Nielsen said, as the truck headed up the numbered forestry service road.
Operations are scheduled to shut down soon for the “spring break” which allows the roads to remain undisturbed during the wet spring season, and ensures drainage patterns aren’t interfered with. As we start up the first fork in the road, mud changes to wet snow. Up above, it’s snowing on the mountainside.
“Diversion of drainage, that’s when things go wrong,” said Nielsen, who has full confidence in the workers using the roads. “Experienced logging contractors are diligent and conscientious, partly because they’ve been scrutinized for around twenty years.”
Slowing to take a hairpin turn, Nielsen explains a little more about the current project.
“Our allowable cut is 20,000 cubic metres a year,” he detailed, “It sounds like a lot, but Interfor’s allowable cut is 400,000.” Because cuts are averaged over five year spans, Nacfor is making up for being under cut for the past three and a half years with this year’s work.
Nielsen, a long-time fan of community forests, was on the 2002 committee that brought Nacfor into being.
“I like the concept of community forests,” said Nielsen, “It allows more community control and more opportunity for profits to be redistributed in the community.”
In 2003, the provincial government thought so too, and introduced the Forestry Revitalization Plan. The Plan required B.C.’s largest tenure holders to return 20 per cent of their logging rights, which were then redistributed to increase diversity and competitiveness in the industry. Ten per cent of the timber tenures to First Nations small tenure holders like community forests and woodlots. Nacfor received its official license in 2008.
As the truck wound its way up, Nielsen commented that although ploughing is an added expense, tree prices are better this time of year, making the cost worthwhile.
We walked to the block, past wood piled up and ready to be hauled away. These trees are mostly firewood, Nielsen informed me. Larch, cedar and some scabby hemlock lurk at the bottom of the cut, a low priority for hauling.
As we pulled up to the ridge, a truck passed us; a hand faller done for the day making his way back down to town.
In the cut block below, a few leap trees stood in a naked bunch. The prescription is to leave around 20 trees per hectare to mimic the effects of natural deforestation, like a forest fire. Next spring, the blocks will be replanted before the brush has a chance to grow.
Nielsen rattled off timber prices, with cedar poles being the fattest find in this block: cedar poles can sell for more than $130 a cubic meter.
Estimating the wealth of a block is a tricky process, one that Nielsen said would benefit from getting more people on the ground.
Judging the content of mixed forests in complex terrain like the area around Nakusp is extremely difficult to do using standard timber models, stated Nielsen: “Foresters need to get back on the ground.”
Profit has almost always been overestimated with the timber models that have been employed in the industry, one of the problems Nielsen noted with previous forestry management.
“Management hasn’t been conservative enough,” he said, “We rarely leave our good stuff, which works until the best of what’s left isn’t good enough.”
As we head down the twisting road, the March snow begins in earnest.
The next morning, Tom Zeleznik, Nacfor director and independent contractor, headed to the log dump for the last day of the season before spring break. The last of the timber on the mountain is being hauled down and taken to the Halfway log dump where it will be bundled up in the water and taken by tug to Castlegar.
The temperature, hovering around zero, has made the highway out to the log dump a slushy mess. Turning off the road, the dump was a white expanse leading out into the water and sky.
“It’s really beautiful when the sun is shining,” Zeleznik said.
With no trucks lined up for the scales, we headed into the shack where Frank Zobel and Doug Zeleznick were waiting for the last of the season’s trucks. The “Halfway House” was a warm spot with a comfy, worn-out chair in the corner. Zobel and the Zeleznicks traded jokes, until two trucks were spotted coming in to the scales.
After getting the trucks’ cargo labelled and ready to go to the dump, the driver came in and got his paperwork, now done by computer, then drove down to the water.
The timber, cinched together with cables, was released into the water, to become part of the large boom destined for Castlegar.
Out on the water, Rick Orr and Darren Wethal moved the bundles around with the tug, fastening them together with steel cables. The logs are covered in a two-inch blanket of soggy snow, and it’s hard to tell pine from pulp. Tags and spray paint make it easier to identify the tree species as they bob in the water.
Wethal, in corks, jumped from the tug to the log rafts, twelve logs tied together. Having hammered the “ears” of the dog into the wood, he’s created one link in a chain of logs that will be laced together to create the boom.
Stock still on the raft, Wethal stood and waited while the tug pushed the raft close enough to another bundle for them to be connected.
Once back inside, the talk is of hockey and spring.
Both Wethal and Orr have worked on the big tug that ships the timber down to Castlegar.
“It takes about seven to ten days, depending on the water level and weather,” Orr said. A four-person crew mans the boat, and the course is watched 24 hours a day. While one shift is in charge, the other sleeps to the sound of the tug’s engines.
The trip to Castlegar can transport about 800 logging truck loads, Orr said. Even if the tug has to travel a bit to collect more loads, it transports about one to one and a half million dollars of wood every two weeks.
Wethal used to work out in the blocks, but made the move to the tug after three close calls in the bush. After working the long haul, he really enjoys working at the long dump.
“You’re in the water every month of the year,” Orr said, the one drawback to the job. Still, the tiny cabin has a small stove, and the guys always bring a change of clothes just in case.
The pace is relaxed but steady on the last day before the spring break, and every one of the men that works out at Halfway mentioned how much they appreciate where they work and live: the great and beautiful Kootenay.