VICTORIA—It was made famous around the world by the TV series “The Beachcombers,” but beachcombing has been a British Columbia institution almost since logging began on the B.C. coast in the late 1880s.
These days, however, many beachcombers—those who salvage stray logs that have escaped from the log booms of the forest companies—are getting out of the business, mainly because it just doesn’t pay enough.
Meanwhile, thousands of cubic metres of stray logs are clogging and crushing marshes in the Fraser River estuary, severely damaging bird habitat and impacting salmon, millions of which migrate down the river each year on their way out to sea.
Under provincial regulations, beachcombers can only return salvaged logs to a "licenced receiving station.” Since there is only one such facility, Gulf Log Salvage Co-operative Association, beachcombers complain that the lack of competition has led to a situation in which they don’t get a fair price for the wood.
As a result, beachcombers are leaving many logs to drift for the simple reason that they would lose money by picking them up. The price of salvaged logs is graded, with some being worth more than others.
“The incentive for us to do it is really not there any more because [Gulf Log] has been paying us an artificially low price and this makes it very unviable economically to recover a lot of the wood,” says long-time beachcomber Norbert Kaysser.
The problem, says Kaysser, is that Gulf Log, which is run by the forest industry and marine insurance companies, has focused on recovering lost logs “at the lowest possible price,” paying a small fee rather than the market value of the wood.
“In many instances, many of us are getting nothing or next to nothing for logs that are a valuable commodity. And it's not necessarily the lower grade logs that we get paid almost nothing for, it's quite often very higher grade logs, but we get almost nothing because of the pay structure. It’s absolutely incredible if you really understand what is going on.”
A request for an interview with Gulf Log was refused. On its website, the company says salvaged logs are generally of lower value than fresh green timber, mainly because some mills refuse salvaged logs. The mills are worried about hitting metal that may be stuck in them, or the logs can be damaged by insects or impregnated with sand.
The fact that the forest industry is currently experiencing the worst timber market in decades is not helping matters. But Kaysser is one of the lucky ones. He’s been in the game for 38 years, his boat is paid for, and he has established “very good contacts in the industry.”
“Still, even for me it's very difficult right now,” he says. “But for someone who might be interested to start out in this business like I did all those years ago, they would have absolutely no chance.”
There is also a cost to retrieving stray logs: $250 per year to renew the necessary permit, a yearly criminal record check costing about $50, and sorting fees of $8.50 per cubic metre of salvaged wood. On top of that there’s fuel and costly boat maintenance.
“We’re providing a service and yet we have to pay the sorting costs out of our share of the proceeds which is very unfair because there are many grades and types of logs that we lose money on. Gulf Log would actually charge us if we brought them there because the sorting fees are more than we would get for them. So some of the logs—it doesn’t pay us to even pick them up,” Kaysser says.
Beachcombers and environmentalists concerned about the situation on the Fraser River have tried for years to bring about change and achieve higher payouts for salvaged logs. A legal challenge to the constitutionality of the log salvage system brought by a beachcomber in 2005 was dismissed.
“In many ways, it’s an industry in danger,” says Mitch Anderson, general manger of Western Log Sort and Salvage Co-operative, a beachcomber-run company he spearheaded to compete with Gulf Log.
But Anderson believes things can be turned around, and he considers it a triumph in itself that the government, after deliberating for 18 months, granted a permit for the co-op in 2006, the only other such permit issued since Gulf Log started up in 1954.
Anderson wants to give beachcombers a fighting chance by providing a choice in where they deliver the wood, paying them a better price and not charging a sorting fee. This in turn, he says, would put more wood back in the marketplace and reduce the environmental impact on the Fraser.
“It’s not all doom and gloom at all,” says Anderson. “This project, in particular this license, is a unique opportunity to improve a very vexing situation and also bring in some more open market and competitive behaviour to the forest industry on the coast in general.”
Western Log was in the process of scaling up operations when the bottom fell out of the market about a year ago. It is currently in a holding pattern until market conditions improve. However, the small company is managing to stay afloat while many businesses related to the forest industry are going under.
Art Paul, president of Permanent Pole, used wood from Western Log in the construction of a new visitors’ information centre at the Peace Arch border crossing that is currently being built in preparation for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.
The salvaged logs are prominently displayed and a key architectural feature of the building, which is scheduled to open in the spring.
“In this particular project the wood has gone to what I would have to say is an ideal application for the reuse of salvaged wood. Its not only putting salvaged wood to very good use but it’s also going to contribute measurably in getting LEED certification for that project,” says Paul.
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an internationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of green buildings. “It’s a significant public relations plum,” says Paul, who is also on the board of the Log Homes Manufacturers Association.
Anderson says log salvaging is a “green job” because beachcombers work to keep the Fraser clear of stray logs that not only damage the river environment but also pose an ever-present, potentially fatal danger to boaters.
The Canadian Coast Guard documented 60 incidents in B.C. waters between 1999 and 2003 in which vessels collided with renegade logs and required assistance or rescue. In 2004, a fishing boat off Tsawwassen capsized after hitting a deadhead. Deadheads are logs that are mostly submerged, with one end protruding above the surface of the water.
What concerns environmentalists and boaters is that if beachcombers don’t pick up the stray logs, nobody does, as the forest companies are not interested in going after them.
Anderson believes that through innovative marketing, salvaged wood can be put to good use while at the same time helping the environment and providing local jobs. While a number of hurdles have to be overcome, one of which is finding a market for the lower grade wood, he is optimistic that Western Log can thrive and grow after the current slump is over.
“Once we start selling a significant amount of wood the co-op is going to have a significant amount of revenue and we can use that to scale up our operations, and we look forward to that day. Our challenge right now is just trying to help beachcombers and get them paid more for their work.”
“Even for me it's very difficult right now. But for someone who might be interested to start out in this business like I did all those years ago, they would have absolutely no chance.”