B.C. logging company airlifts timber from rough terrain, one tree at a time

DUNCAN, B.C. , May 9, 2006 () – There's a new breed of logger hiking the hills of Vancouver Island, chainsaws roaring.

These guys drive the big trucks, they make the big bucks and they chop down the big trees.

The difference is, like the number of candles on their birthday cakes, the footprint they leave on the land is small.

Crofton's Jayson Kemmler and Bridger Schmidt, both 23, have joined forces with Kemmler's dad, Sig, to form Alternative Forest Operations, a local company delving into the world of single-stem logging.

"It's a type of heli-logging that makes it so nobody can even tell we were there," Kemmler said. "We go in and take out the big, high quality trees without trashing the rest of the growth.

"Sometimes we're called in specifically for aesthetic purposes."

Sometimes referred to as extreme logging, the co-owners of AFO and their crew are taken to an area which is either too steep for equipment, too unstable or located in an environmentally sensitive area or a place where clear-cutting isn't welcome, and get to work.

"Engineers go in before us and mark out which trees to cut," Schmidt said. "We're flown in, or we hike in, and cut the trees they want."

The trees the customers are after are the old growth, high-grade wood - the grandfathers of the forest.

"Everyone knows what a knot looks like in a piece of wood," Kemmler said. "These trees don't have knots. They're prime."

AFO's crew climbs the mammoth timber using spikes and ropes, de-limbing the tree until reaching the desired height. Then the tree is topped, leaving a bare pillar protruding from the earth.

After repelling back to terra firma, the loggers chainsaw the tree to within millimetres of the timber toppling.

Cue the chopper.

"We don't fall the trees," Kemmler said. "The helicopter flies in and hooks onto the tree, then snaps it off and flies away.

"The wood doesn't touch the ground until it's at the loading site."

The quality of the wood fetches a high price in the international market, where Sig, a.k.a. the Prez, says a lot of the wood goes.

"The logs we produce go to the high-end markets," Sig said. "It's some of the best quality wood around and people pay for it. It goes toward things like high-end door frames and windows, but the companies we work for would know better where the wood goes."

Currently the small operation is in the process of controlled expansion, keeping 15 full-time fallers and climbers on staff while hiring up to 35 workers in the peak season.

Along with the single-stem cutting, which Sig estimates equals about ten per cent of their timber logged, the company does a specialized type of standing timber protection called wind firming.

Wind firming is the process of protecting timber in unstable areas by selectively cutting green limbs to allow wind to flow through the stand. Using a piece of equipment known as the claw, the loggers swing from tree to tree, cutting windows in the branches.

"We sometimes stay up all day," Schmidt said. "We've got all our food and all our equipment with us. It's faster than climbing each tree individually."

Because there are so few old growth trees available for harvest, and wind firming is sporadic, the company also logs traditionally.

"With the support of one of our partners, we have developed a powerful data analysis tool besides working in the field," Sig said, which allows the company to harvest more wood per stand.

It's not yet available for other companies to use although Sig believes it could be an option for the future.

"Right now we're concentrating on making it more useful for our company and making our projects more effective."

As one of only five companies on the Island involved in single-stem logging, AFO's future is looking bright.

"Right now the big potential is on Crown land," Sig said. "That's where the future lies."

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