Canadian Biomass Magazine

Features Pellets
Editorial: November-December 2014 – Beetle-kill business

Dec. 8, 2014 - I recently spent a week near Prince George, B.C., where I was visiting several sawmills and pellet plants to see how the industry in the region hardest hit by the mountain pine beetle has adapted 10 years after the forests died.


December 5, 2014
By Amie Silverwood


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Dec. 8, 2014 – I recently spent a week near Prince George, B.C., where I was visiting several sawmills and pellet plants to see how the industry in the region hardest hit by the mountain pine beetle has adapted 10 years after the forests died. It is difficult to describe the vast forests of dead trees for anyone who hasn’t seen them. In some regions, there may have been up to 20 per cent of living spruce but much of the forests stood dead.

The dead pine had to be treated with care to prevent breakage. Gulbranson, one of the logging contractors that works with L&M Lumber, which shares a site and ownership with Nechako Lumber and Premium Pellet, is using a decking machine to gently pile the lumber before processing. The decker picks up the logs from above, causing less breakage than a skidder pushing the wood into a pile. Even with special treatment, however, I noticed a sizable pile of broken logs.

Even when the logs are carefully harvested, processed and taken to the mill, they aren’t what they used to be. A blue ring around the outside of the log is a telltale sign the log hosted the beetle at one time. Deep checks are also common in the brittle wood that would crack rather than bend in a windstorm. L&M Lumber added an optimizer to spot these defects and to position the logs to find the best solution for each log. Still, recovery isn’t what it used to be – much of the log is now unsalvageable for lumber.

Of course, that means the sawmill is making more sawdust and chips – which is good for companies that depend on sawmill residuals to make pellets or pulp. But at some point, there won’t be enough value in the logs for the sawmills to bother bringing them in.

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The dead pine trees that stood close to towns, sawmills or accessible roads have mostly been cut down with a new generation of growth pushing up in their place. In areas where the pine has not been removed, they cast shadows over the new growth and slow the forests’ regeneration. Even worse, they provide ideal fuel for forest fires that could be devastating as the new growth burns alongside the old.

The provincial government is tasked with answering the question: how do we keep a healthy and vibrant forest industry in a region where so many of the trees have died?

The solution offered is an interesting one that may provide pellet producers with more clout when seeking a secure source of fibre over the long term. The provincial government introduced a supplemental forest licence meant to encourage the harvesting of the dead pine that is less accessible and this new licence is not available to sawmills.

Harvesting and trucking the dead pine that remains is an expensive option for pellet mills but forest companies have a long tradition of trading log profiles, chips and sawmill residuals to the benefit of the industry as a whole. Supplementary forest licences will provide pellet producers with a seat at the negotiation table.


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