Other Voices: Heli-logging’s survival depends on cost control

 - October 12, 2007, 10:59 AM

After reading Bill Wagstaff’s article on heli-logging in AIN, I feel compelled to respond. I lived and worked on Vancouver Island for over 20 years. Thanks to that experience, I think I can inject another perspective to the issue of the environment and economic soundness of heli-logging.

The conflicting points of view are illustrated in the photo you ran of the local Nuu-chah-nulth Indian loggers, heads bowed, thanking the trees for giving up their lives. Not long ago these same Indians sided with Greenpeace and others to save the trees from the evil Canadian logging companies. On the other hand, some of them even worked for such companies. When they realized the “enviro-ninnies” wanted no logging at all, they chased them off and started their own campaign to acquire logging privileges for themselves. Now with the help of Weyerhaeuser and the Canadian government, they are going to kill just a few trees, but it’s OK, because they thank the trees first and it’s in harmony with the environment. Was that the traditional ceremonial Native S-61 photographed in the background?

If you really want to know something of the environment of Vancouver Island and the logging practices utilized there, some valid research is required. It may take time and energy but I can assure you it will be enlightening and worthwhile.

As for the environmental validity of heli-logging, I would like to dispel a few of the common myths. Helicopters are vastly more expensive to build than conventional grapple yarders [wheeled vehicles resembling power shovels, but with hydraulically driven pincers attached at the end of their booms–Ed.] Helicopters are manufactured from more sophisticated man-made materials using energy-consuming processes. They suck fuel at an amazing rate when lifting. More workers are required to operate and maintain them. Therefore, someone somewhere else must do a lot more to the environment to produce and sustain them. A well maintained or overhauled grapple yarder can be had for about $500,000; the equivalent S-61 will run about $3.5 million. For every S-61 you could own seven yarders.

The yarding costs quoted in the article do not appear accurate or complete. When I left Canada in 1999 due to a lack of work, our conventional grapple yarding costs were about $5 (Canadian) per cubic meter. Our helicopter yarding costs were $75 to $80 per meter for the same species of wood. The final product sold for about $120 per meter. Our profit margins were less than $5 per meter. Helicopters such as the S-61 or S-64 cost between $5,000 and $7,000 an hour to operate. In a productive 10-hour shift we could yard 500 to 700 cubic meters. The Heli-wood must be cut to shorter lengths for lifting, reducing its value and increasing handling costs. I don’t believe you can yard wood on Vancouver Island for $40 a meter using any helicopter.

The helicopter is only a yarder. Yarding is one small phase of the logging (stump to dump) process. You still have bidding, falling, road building, bucking and loading, hauling, scaling, booming and sorting, and in many cases the cost of transporting, housing and feeding crews. Road building has not or will not be eliminated by heli-logging. The helicopter turns (cycles) must be kept below four minutes to be affordable, two minutes is ideal. The helicopter simply flies the wood to a roadside landing, where it can be loaded and trucked to a log dump. The areas being heli-logged now were made accessible by building roads in the past or by building new roads. (These are the same roads used by tourists and environmentalists visiting the island.)

There are not many water dumps used. If water dumps are used, the wood must be dewatered, sorted, scaled and dumped again. It is not hard to imagine that with yarding costs 16 times higher and the increased handling required that the decision not to heli-log was a financial decision.

As far as sustainability goes, 35,000 cubic meters would have kept 12 men in our company working for about two months in a conventional grapple-yarder setting. The wood is sustainable, the people that produce it and the markets they serve are not. Understanding the concept of sustainable clear-cut logging as it applies to coastal logging operations requires serious and objective study. It is a complex business that has been evolving for many years. This is what made wood products available and affordable, including the paper on which you print your magazine.

Since the mid 1980s the government of Canada has restricted logging in British Columbia dramatically. The areas open to heli-logging are by political fiat. Cutting approvals, stumpage fees, grants for manufacturing (sawmills and so on) and foreign market availability have all been manipulated by government for political favor. Helicopters and Indians are in vogue now. If the present trend of political intervention from uninformed zealots continues to shape the way we work and live, we can look forward to unaffordable wood products from North America and a lower standard of living.

Environmentalism is a political movement, not a science. Claims have been made about environmental damage from logging. The scientific facts (hard science) behind the environmental damage claims are missing. Clear cuts to some may be unattractive; this is an esthetic evaluation not a scientific one. Many good people lost the opportunity to sustain themselves on Vancouver Island. It is important to understand the difference between sound sustainable logging practice and political appeasement.

Helicopters are marvelous machines created from the ideas, materials and labor of men much brighter than me. They have enriched our lives and save many from peril daily. Using a helicopter to yank heavy chunks of wet wood from a foggy rain forest, however, is akin to hauling concrete in the trunk of your Ferrari. It’s a bad idea that, like so many others today, won’t last.