Heli-logging in harmony with the environment

 - January 21, 2008, 11:45 AM

“Environmentally sensitive logging.” It’s a phrase that seems almost a contradiction in terms. After all, isn’t logging blamed for habitat destruction of a yards-long list of endangered and outright extinct species? And aren’t helicopters those esoteric flying machines that routinely spew death, fire, spare parts and, worst of all, noise, on every terrain they overfly?

Well, not exactly. Thanks to an innovative use of both rotary-wing technology and creative logging techniques, a unique partnership is making logging history smack in the middle of some of the most environmentally sensitive timber regions in the Western Hemisphere–the hotly contested old-growth forest regions of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. This land is a vast chunk of what was once Longfellow’s “forest primeval” extending from sea to sea from the arctic timberline at the northern end of the continent south to the great grasslands of the central plains. Over the past two centuries, three-quarters of Vancouver Island’s original old-growth forest has fallen to logging. Remaining relatively untouched, the Clayoquot Sound–made up of parts of Canada’s Pacific Rim National Park, British Columbia’s Stratcona National Park and a network of small ecological reserves–is a million-acre natural amphitheater measuring some 75 miles long, a network of fjords, islands and isolated enclaves with evocative names such as Pretty Girl Valley. Contained in the remaining old-growth areas are unique habitats to dozens of endangered species, deeply isolated groves containing the largest known concentrations of certain species and among the last untouched such areas on the North American continent.
Despite the official protests of national and provincial parks, most of the area’s old-growth forests stand on land legally available for old- fashioned clear cutting. Beginning in the late 1970s, lumber companies began targeting those old-growth areas in earnest. Environ- mental groups and loggers fenced their way through both the courts and on the picket lines, the matter climaxing in 1993 when protesters clashed in confrontations resulting in more than 850 arrests, said to be the largest display ever of public civil disobedience in Canada.

Finally, in May 2000, Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien deducted nearly 900,000 acres of the region to be the Clayoquot Sound Unesco Biosphere Reserve. A clause in the act allowed sustainable resource use, meaning logging could continue. But this time it was to be logging worth a difference.

A new company, Iisaak Forest Resources–a joint venture that is 49-percent owned by the timber giant Weyerhaeuser and 51-percent owned by the local Nuu-chah-nulth tribes– emerged to fill this niche. Iisaak (pronounced “usak”) is the Nuu-chah-nulth word for respect.

Iisaak shows respect in the way it heli-logs. While it is more costly than older, more environmentally destructive forms of logging (in which roads are built, draglines constructed and the logs cut and removed cross-country, resulting in copious amounts of destructive erosion), heli-logging is actually easier in the high-rainfall region of Vancouver Island’s water-soaked west coast, an ecosystem so damp it is classified as a rainforest.

“By removing the wood with a helicopter we are able to minimize the environmental effects of roadbuilding and soil compaction for operating equipment on wet ground,” said Iisaak Forest Resources spokeswoman Cindy Hazenboom. “We operate in a high-rainfall area [approximately 137 inches a year] and the helicopters can work year round, with fewer restrictions in terms around rainfall shutdowns to avoid soil compaction. The downside is that fog can shut us down at any time, and there’s definitely more fog during the winter.”

The general strategy is to pick a stand of desirable trees in a spot where the removal of some won’t create an erosion problem and then select a few, leaving the others to protect the site from wind and water erosion and to replenish the newly open area with their seeds. It’s essentially the difference between picking flowers and mowing the lawn. “One of the other advantages of using helicopters is that they can access timber in areas that were previously considered inoperable because you couldn’t get a road into them or, if you could, the cost and the environmental risks were too high.”

While heli-logging is arguably easier in the demanding environment of these coastal mountains, it isn’t as cheap as the old ways. “We harvest approximately 35,000 cubic meters per year from a 215,000-acre area of Clayoquot Sound,” said Hazenboom. “That volume produces approximately seven million board feet of Forest Stewardship Council-certified lumber per year. Depending on log prices, 35,000 cubic meters of timber per year results in a gross revenue of about $5 million.

“The helicopter requires a crew of about 13 people. Overall, planning and harvesting 35,000 cubic meters employs the full-time equivalent of approximately 47 people,” Hazenboom said.

And aside from the obvious environmental benefits, how does helilogging compare with traditional forms of logging? Iisaak Forest Resources has crunched the numbers. “Using a helicopter costs about $40 per cubic meter more than using a ground-based harvesting method. However, the roadbuilding required for ground-based harvesting costs about $15 per cubic meter, so the net cost is about $25 per cubic meter higher for a helicopter. Of course, this analysis does not factor in the benefits of maintaining water quality, viewscapes, recreation, wildlife and cultural values. By maintaining these values, the forest provides a stable, diversified economic base to the local communities. And that’s our goal.”

Helicopters used have varied between an S-61N operated by Coulson Aircrane of Port Alberni, British Columbia, and a Russian-built, Canadian-certified Kamov Ka-32 operated by Vancouver Island Helicopter of Sidney, British Columbia. Both helicopters can do the job; using one over the other has been chiefly a matter of price and availability. While the Ka-32 can carry more on the hook, it costs more to operate.

Harvesting timber this way costs more, but so far Iisaak Forest Reserve is making a profit. It’s also making friends, winning the coveted Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification in its first year of operation. “Our premium timber is sold to customers around the world,” Hazenboom said in closing. “We recently produced approximately 110,000 board feet of premium FSC-certified western red cedar for decorative finishing to complete a project on George Lucas’ ranch. The bottom line is that we’re providing a high-value product for consumers who have an environmental conscience.”