Largest of the old-growth sawmills faces wreckers’ ball

Largest of the old-growth sawmills faces wreckers’ ball.

The largest of the old-growth log sawmills on the Fraser River is being demolished, signalling the decline of the big timber logging that built British Columbia.

It’s the second time in the old mill’s long history it has been slated for destruction, but this time, the wreckers are already at work.

A piece of B.C. history, it has the simple name of B Mill, one of five custom-cutting sawmills named after letters of the alphabet at S&R Sawmills Ltd. in Surrey.

The mill’s death shows just how much the forest industry has changed, said owner Donald “Chick” Stewart, 83, who bought the mill 47 years ago when it was located on False Creek. It was destined to be demolished in 1973 as part of the re-development of that part of Vancouver before Stewart stepped in and shipped it in one piece to Port Kells.

This time, it’s a lack of logs that has spelled its end, said Stewart, co-owner with his wife Marilyn, of S&R Sawmills, the province’s largest custom-cut sawmilling operation.

Stewart could no longer keep it running enough days to break even and the diet of logs was getting smaller, making the old, labour-intensive mill too inefficient.

“There just aren’t as many large logs coming out of the woods, so we decided we had to shut her down,” said Stewart. B Mill was one of five sawmills S&R operates along a two- kilometre stretch of the Fraser River property at Port Kells. Four sawmills remain, specializing in cutting the different species and sizes of wood coming from coastal forests. The fifth, a chip mill, makes wood chips from less valuable logs.

Old mills that handle the big logs are at the heart of the coastal forest industry’s value-added business. S&R and a handful of other independent sawmills, mostly along the Fraser, account for only 10 per cent of the coastal forestry business but bring in 20 per cent of the revenues.

Using slow production methods with large crews of highly-trained workers, they add value to the old-growth logs with every pass of the saw. These are not commodity lumber products. They are custom-cut specifically for individual clients.

“The custom-cut business is one of the centrepieces in our drive to move up the value chain,” said Rick Jeffery, president of the Coast Forest Products Association. “They can make high-valued products for a niche market.”

However, the transition to second-growth forests and changes in global demand have hit the business hard.

The issue is how much capacity is needed. The Japanese market, once the mainstay of the business, faded when a new building code favoured engineered and kiln-dried wood products.

The U.S. market also has adopted kiln-dried lumber. The other major market for coastal wood, China, is more interested in logs. The result: the most inefficient mills are closing. And as good as S&R’s B Mill is at cutting the big timbers, it is inefficient. It takes a crew of 90 to run two shifts. By way of comparison, a commodity mill cutting dimension lumber can produce a million board feet of wood a day with a crew of 18. The difference is that S&R’s five mills produce 240 different sorts of lumber of different lengths. thicknesses and grades.

“To get a million board feet a day we would have to have 400 guys working,” Stewart said.

Sawmiller David Gray, of the privately-owned forest company Mill & Timber Products Ltd., said the flood of log exports, which have a higher profit margin than lumber, is a key factor in the downsizing of the custom-cutting business. In 2011, 5.8 million cubic metres of logs were exported from the coast, almost one third of the entire harvest.

“What is happening now has changed the world Chick Stewart lives in. He is an extraordinary sawmiller. He is an extraordinary individual. And I think he’s one of the modest but great British Columbians. He did it by keeping his head down and marching along and not making noise about these other things.

“His business is shrinking and it is shrinking because more and more of the resource is going offshore. But he’s not alone. It’s true for sawmilling.”

Escape,” Stewart said of the mill being floated out. An old railway bridge across the creek had to be raised to let the mill through. The Nalos Mill was owned by B.C. Forest Products at the time and was losing money. Stewart made it profitable for almost 47 years, until it was shut down in March, 2011.

The highly-valued lumber it made that has been used for everything from Italian windows to the tightly-grained beams needed in the reconstruction of ancient Asian temples.

The logs came from some of the largest trees ever to be cut on the coast. Stewart recalls the day in 1986 when a log six metres in diameter came into the log pond.

“It was Sitka Spruce and it was 249 inches across the butt,” he said. “We had to cut it into 13 pieces to get it up the jack ladder and into the mill.”

Ken Voight, operations manager at S&R, said the primary market for the lumber produced at the mill was Japan. S&R also cut lumber for major coastal forest companies and brokers, as well as for Japanese companies. They do not sell a stick of lumber themselves. The 1980s was the high point for the Japanese trade in B.C. lumber. The large Japanese trading houses, like Mitsubishi and Marubeni all had offices in Vancouver, buying the big logs and having them cut exclusively for the Japanese market.

Buyers from Japan would visit the millsite to watch the wood being processed. They still do, at the S&R’s nearby A Mill, which specializes in cutting long boards.

However, in the last decade, the green lumber produced by the custom-cut mills fell out of demand, particularly in Japan after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, in which traditional post-and-beam houses did not fare well. New products like engineered wood replaced coastal lumber.

“There were many mills on Vancouver Island and up and down the Fraser River that used to produce green squares by the boatload and send them to Japan,” said Voight.

Then there’s been a change in the values people hold about the forests as well. Public and marketplace reaction to old-growth logging has led to more protected areas and the introduction of ecosystem-based logging, which leaves intact ecosystems behind when the loggers leave. It is more costly.

There’s no single reason for the decline, loggers say, and there’s no single way to fix it.

For S&R and many other coastal mills, the only alternative has been downsizing.

“Our business has become more seasonal, a sign of the economic times,” Voight said.

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