Loggers chew through mountain of storm damage

TALL ORDER: Logging crews have months of work ahead of them to get through a wall of wood.
TALL ORDER: Logging crews have months of work ahead of them to get through a wall of wood.

Harvesting trees brought down on Canterbury farmland by the gales of September and October last year will take at least until the middle of this year, with logging crews, transport operators and the ports of Lyttelton and Timaru fully stretched.

Lyttelton Port of Christchurch chief executive Peter Davie said log export volumes at the port were up by 30 to 40 per cent.

"It would be fair to say that's putting pressure on our space, but we're working constructively with the different log companies to get the volume through, and it is flowing through well," Davie said.

"It's about making sure we stockpile it well and just getting the best out of the space, and the log companies are working very well with us to achieve that."

The trees downed in the windstorms, mostly pinus radiata, contain an estimated 1.3 million tonnes of wood, and extra crews and machinery have come to Canterbury to remove them.

One operator, Laurie Forestry, has doubled its number of logging crews from 12 to 24, and other operators are doing the same.

"It's a little bit hard to determine just how long this is going to go on for - certainly until the middle of the year," said owner Allan Laurie.

"We've moved to 19 logging trucks working for us fulltime, and we'll have about 21 by the end of this month to get us through the job, and all that takes quite a bit of co-ordinating."

Laurie said the fallen timber was holding up well, with little sign so far of sap stain, which would make it unsuitable for the domestic market.

"That will eventually occur, and we'll start to see some wood that might have sold domestically having to go to export, because that's not nearly so sensitive towards sap stain.

"I think the general comment would be it's not as bad as was expected, but we're starting to hear reports now of white mould and a bit of sap stain starting to creep in."

Transport Rangiora owner Murray Pascoe said he had bought more trucks to handle the upsurge of work but was reluctant to over- capitalise.

"We have got a wee bit more gear in, but it's a bit scary to put too much in, knowing the wind- blow is probably only going to give us another six to eight months' extra work."

"In a couple of cases we have done double shifting, but it has meant quite a bit of logistical juggling, and it's not ideal, because you've got to think of the health and safety ramifications - you don't want something going wrong in the middle of the night," Pascoe said.

The work tended to be hard on gear, he said, especially as most of his company's work was on farm forestry blocks.

"You're going in across paddocks, and certainly in the winter or after rain it is quite challenging - and, being smaller blocks, you might be there for a couple of weeks and then you move on to the next one, so nobody wants to spend money on putting a gravel track in."

While the wind damage has slashed expected returns for forest owners, with trees coming down well before they were big enough for the domestic market, they've delivered an unexpected bonus to logging crews, transport firms and ports.

The good news for owners, though, is that log exports to China are booming, and logs deemed too small for domestic mills are sought after there.

"Prices have been increasing, and have continued to increase through January, and we don't see too much change," Laurie said.

"There's a wee bit of a dark cloud on the horizon, but nothing to do with any wood coming from Canterbury - they're just simply a function of the everyday market. You're coming up to Chinese New Year, and there's always levels of uncertainty around that.

"All credit to everybody - they're digging in hard, and by and large it's going very well."

The Press