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A Short History of Logging in the Bella Coola Valley

By Hans Granander, R.P.F.
August 3, 2008

The Early Days

The Bella Coola valley is ideally suited for the growth of giant timber due to its rich alluvial soils and moist temperate climate.  This timber has considerable economic value and consequently, the most extensive developments in the main valley and tributaries have been as a result of logging. Prior to the coming of Norwegian settlers in 1893, logging in Bella Coola was carried out on a relatively small scale by the Nuxalk people and pioneering settlers for their sustenance needs.  Wood material was used for housing, canoes and a variety of other tools and objects. Usually logs would have been processed with hand tools right at the cutting site and the finished poles, canoes or boards were then manually dragged to the river for transport to a village or settlement. Small clearings would also have been made for village sites and homesteads. Most likely, fuel wood was the largest use of wood at this time.

With the coming of the Norwegian settlers, land clearing for farming began in earnest. To fulfill the need for construction lumber, Tom Allen set up the first mill in the valley in 1898 near Klonik (Nookliklonnik) creek.  This was a vertical saw blade mill powered by a water wheel.  Shortly after, a second mill was built at Snootli creek, near the falls. Logs for these mills came from the private lands in the immediate area. Lumber from these mills was hauled down to the mouth of the inlet on the wagon road that was completed in 1894 linking Hagensborg to Bella Coola. The wharf on the north side of the inlet and the bridges crossing the Bella Coola and Necleetsconnay rivers were built using lumber from these mills. A third mill sprang up at the outskirts of ‘Old Town’ Bella Coola as it was being built around 1904 along the Necleetsconnay River. This mill was built by the Owens brothers and it was powered by two converted steam donkeys. At the same time, the Nuxalk Nation logged the Indian Reserve located on the large adjoining river flat between the Bella Coola and Necleetsconnay rivers. Around 1913, another mill was constructed at the confluence of the Salloompt and Bella Coola Rivers by ‘Honest’ John Lokken, Torger Olsen, Oliver Kellog, Andrew Nesvold and Karl Skjepstad.  They used Olsen’s oxen, affectionately called ‘The Boys’ to haul logs to the mill. Logs too large for the sawmill were split using blasting powder.

With the completion of the Ocean Falls pulp mill in 1912, huge tracts of timber were granted in the form of pulp leases throughout the coast and in the Bella Coola valley. However, for the first few decades, logging in the Bella Coola valley was sporadic and mostly on the private properties located on the valley bottom flats.  The river provided the main means for transporting the logs at this time and so trees were either felled directly into the river or dragged there by horse, oxen or steam donkey. Later, tractors and caterpillars were also used. Due to the many natural logjams on the river, it was extremely difficult and risky to run logs down river over long distances.  Therefore, river drive logging was primarily limited to areas below Snooka creek, although, there are reports that some logs were floated down from properties as far up valley as Glacier (Cachootin) creek, near Noosgulch. Logs, not milled locally, were collected at the mouth of the river, boomed up and towed to Ocean Falls where they were bought by Pacific Mills Ltd.   Not having modern powerboats, machines or equipment, it was very difficult to control the logs and booms. Consequently, break ups were common and sometimes, whole log booms were lost.  It should also be noted that in order to keep the river in its established channel, it was common practice for the locals to manually cut out natural logjams that were redirecting the river. Sometimes even explosives were used to free up the tangle of logs.

Expansion of the Industry

In the 1930’s logging became more of a sustained activity.  The first ‘outside’ logging company to set up business in the Bella Coola valley was the Viking Timber Company which went bankrupt after a period of time and left a sizeable, unpaid, labour payroll behind.  Many of the unpaid workers on this payroll joined together to form the Northern Co-operative Timber and Mills Association. Through sheer hard work their business prospered and eventually re-organized as Northcop Logging Company Ltd.  It was also around this time, in the late 1930’s, that trucks took over the transportation of logs to the local mills or to the seaside log dump. Consequently, there was no longer a need to float logs down the river. Unlike the early logging in some other valleys in the Mid Coast, railway logging was never done in Bella Coola.

In order to transport logs to mills outside the valley, logs were sorted and boomed up at the Bella Coola estuary.  This operation was essentially carried out in the shallow water where pilings could be installed.  Remnants of these pilings can still be seen in the shallows along the road leading to the harbour and they provide an indicator of how the estuary is pushing westward as the silty Bella Coola River fills in the shallows at the head of North Bentinck Arm.

When trucks were first introduced, a road along the south shore of North Bentinck Arm leading to the cannery that already existed there (built in late 1920’s). Consequently, the first log dump was built on a small spur off this road at the estuary.  At first logs were pushed off the trucks down a skid way.  At low tide, the logs stuck in the mud making it very difficult for the pike polers to undo the tangle of logs.  In 1953, a second dump was built further out but still on valley side of the net loft.  To get out into deeper water, a Tyler system of lift and lower was employed. With this system an A-frame was used to first elevate the load of logs and then slide the load out to deep water on cables running out to a smaller A-frame anchored away from shore where the load was subsequently released. The loads were then sorted and boomed up along the pilings.  This system was used until the summer of 1980 when the third dump was set up further out the inlet near Clayton Falls. At this site, a ‘Gin’ pole was erected to lift and lower the truck loads into the ocean directly below. The new booming grounds were also located at this deep water site. This site was used until 1992, and after that, logs were processed at dry land sorts west of Clayton Falls. Sorted bundles were slid into the ocean at these sites and stored in the booming grounds that were established for the Clayton Falls Gin pole dump-site.

Prior to the 1960’s, most of the logs not used in Bella Coola were towed to the mills at Ocean Falls in flat booms. To transport logs to mills further south, stronger more solid booms called a ‘Davis raft’ were used, in order to tow the logs across the open ocean at Cape Caution.  Davis rafts were constructed by par buckling layers of logs on top of each other, with each layer secured by cable. The resulting raft resembled an iceberg in the sense that most of the logs were under water, being pushed down by layers above.  In the 1960’s self-loading/offloading barges were introduced to the area and the transport of logs to the mills on Vancouver Island and the lower mainland became more routine.

The steam donkey (a steam powered winch) was the main logging workhorse in the early half of the century. To pull, or ‘yard’, logs into the landing, ‘donkeys’ were teamed with tall spar trees rigged with a running cable on which logs were suspended by ‘chokers’ like clothes on a line. By the late 1940’s, donkeys and wooden spar trees were replaced with metal towers powered by diesel engines.  In 1978, the first mobile cranes with a mechanical grapple, called ‘Grapple yarders’, began to take over as the preferred highlead yarding machinery. The next technological logging innovation was the use of helicopters, which were first introduced to the valley in 1993.

Expansion of Logging Up-Valley and Tributaries

The 1950’s saw a rapid expansion of logging activity in the main valley and its larger tributaries.  Allison logging began to progressively log up the Necleetsconnay valley while Northcop significantly expanded their mill and relocated it to the present site of Little Valley Forest Products on Salloompt road.  A number of technological advances further improved logging efficiency and the speed at which timber was felled, yarded, processed and transported at this time.  Power saws were continuing to become lighter and better, making it easier and faster to fall the timber and process the logs.  Highlead yarding machinery was more mobile and easier to set up.  Mobile line loaders with manual tongs enabled ‘cherry picking’ and sped up the truck loading procedure. The Northwest line shovel, the predecessor to the modern excavator, was also introduced at this time and this dramatically changed the way roads were built. Prior to this, road building was only done with caterpillar bulldozers. 

Improvements in road building equipment enabled the construction of roads on terrain previously inaccessible, which opened up new areas of harvesting.  With the advent of highly mobile machinery and fast road building, ‘access logging’ became a common style of logging on gentle terrain.  With this method, a series of parallel, temporary roads were constructed at a spacing whereby the line loader machines could reach all the logs between roads and load them directly onto a truck.  This system greatly increased the road density and the amount of disturbed soil. The next innovation came in the late 70’s when hydraulic technology enabled the development of excavators and grapple yarding machinery. With a shorter yarding reach than the steel towers, the use of grapple yarders increased the road density requirements.

With these technological advances, clearcut logging progressed quickly up the Bella Coola watershed.  In the main valley, logging was mainly confined to the relatively flat valley bottom and alluvial fans, while highlead machinery stretched higher up the hillsides in the major tributary valleys of Salloompt, Nusatsum, Noosgulch and Noomst. By the late 1960’s, the logging had progressed beyond Burnt Bridge and Northcop’s crews were starting to enter the Talchacko valley. With the majority of timber already logged in the main valley, for the next three decades, logging continued to stretch towards the back of the Nusatsum, Salloompt, Noosgulch, Noomst and Talchacko drainages.  By the mid 80’s, logging was progressing up the Tsini-Tsini tributary of the Talchacko and operations were just starting to move into the Clayton Falls valley west of Bella Coola. In the late 90’s, logging activity was much reduced and scattered to the very back end of the Talchacko River near Ape creek and the Salloompt valley.  There was also minor logging in Glacier (Cachootin) creek and the Nusatsum river valley.

Log Flow and Corporate Structures

The evolution of the forest industry in Bella Coola includes many different players and a changing pattern of log milling from local to distant locations.  In the early 1900’s, most saw mills were located on Vancouver island and in the lower mainland and the cost and risk of towing logs to those locations were prohibitive. Consequently, virtually all timber logged in the Bella Coola valley was milled locally for local use.  That changed in 1912, when the Ocean Falls Company Ltd’s the pulp mill opened, thus creating a large local demand for logs.  The minor logging that occurred in the Bella Coola valley at this time was from private lands and it wasn’t until the 1950’s that intensive logging commenced on the pulp leases granted to the Ocean Falls Company. 

In 1954, the Ocean Falls Company, renamed Pacific Mills Ltd. in 1915, was bought by Crown Zellerbach Canada Ltd (CZ).  With the exception of timber milled by the local Northcop Logging Ltd., the majority of logged timber was transported to Ocean Falls at that time.  In the 1960’s, the antiquated mill at Ocean Falls was no longer competitive and structurally unable to accommodate new, efficient paper machines.  Consequently CZ closed the mill in 1973 at which time the government bought the mill and tried to run it.  The timber rights however, stayed in CZ’s possession and the majority of logs began to flow further south to mills on Vancouver Island and lower mainland.  The Ocean Falls pulp mill closed permanently in 1980.  Northcop continued to operate sporadically under various ownership until 1995 when it was bought by Little Valley Forest Products Ltd., a subsidiary of C&C Wood Products out of Quesnel.  Little Valley replaced the old mill with a value added, cedar siding mill.  With relatively minor amounts of cedar in the valley, Little Valley depends on logs from the outer coast.

Crown Zellerbach was bought by Fletcher Challenge of New Zealand in 1983 and the name changed to Crown Forest Industries Ltd.  This company was then combined with British Columbia Forest Products Ltd. and renamed to Fletcher Challenge Canada Ltd. in 1990.  Fletcher Challenge’s Mid Coast operations were sold to International Forest Products Ltd (Interfor) in 1993.  

Since the expansion of the 1950’s, the vast majority of timber in the Bella Coola valley was towed out of the valley for processing.  This has been a source of much frustration to locals seeing economic opportunities being ‘exported’ out of the valley.  However, the logistical challenges of running a large milling facility in a remote location with limited power supply makes it virtually impossible to compete with mills in lower cost locations. Therefore, future opportunities for processing logs locally will rely on supplying the small local market and niche products for niche markets utilising only certain types of logs while the rest are sold to mills outside the valley.

Environmental Impacts

Since the start of commercial logging in the Bella Coola valley there has been a steady progression of improved harvesting practices with reduced impacts on environment and on the hydrology of the watershed.  However, these improvements were enabled by advances in technology that, at the same time, increased the local rate of harvest. This, in turn, caused other environmental impacts. From the 1970’s through to the end of the 20th century there was an increasing effort at modifying all aspects of forestry practices to minimize environmental impacts.

Prior to the mid-1930’s, logs were transported by floating them down rivers and creeks. Consequently, the only logging done was in the vicinity of riparian areas. Logs were generally dragged on the ground to the river, or creek and most of the small, rearing streams in the lower Bella Coola valley would have been impacted from this style of logging.  Similarly, the river run logs would also have impacted the river gravel habitat as they bobbed their way down to the estuary.  Land clearing for farming would have further alienated small stream habitat at this time.  

The arrival of trucks to transport logs did away with the need for the river runs. However, logs were still dumped and sorted in the shallows of the estuary for another 45 years, when the log dump was moved to a deep water site away from the estuary. Similarly, forests continued to be cleared to the edge of streams until the late 1980’s when the Coast Fish Forestry Guidelines were implemented. These guidelines were replaced with the more stringent Forest Practices Code in 1995. Although, riparian tree cover is recovering quickly and in many areas it is now difficult to see which areas were harvested, the vast majority of riparian forests along the Bella Coola River and the lower parts of its main tributaries were cleared at least once during the 20th century.

The evolution of ground based to highlead logging systems reduced the amount of ground disturbance that reduced soil erosion. However, more and more roads were being built higher up on steeper terrain. Water management was virtually non-existent for early roads, leading to significant erosion and failures. With the introduction of line shovels and, later, excavators, road construction improved. ‘End hauling’ was now possible and instead of just pushing excess material over the side of the road, excavators were able to place material where it was needed on stable sites.  This significantly reduced side-cast erosion and landslides associated with roads. The ‘Access logging’ carried out on many valley bottom sites and alluvial fans required a high density of roads, which were susceptible to erosion.  Site degradation regulations enacted in the late 1980’s eliminated this style of logging. With the enactment of the FPC, road engineering, water management and maintenance was dramatically improved. The use of helicopters has recently created the opportunity to log sensitive areas with minimal impact and a reduced need for risky mid slope roads. 

With a spectacular and internationally renowned natural environment, the Mid Coast became an area of intense controversy in the late 1990’s as the ‘war in the woods’ between logging interests and environmental groups heated up. After ten years of extraordinary cooperative effort, companies, First Nations, environmental groups, communities and other resource stake holders achieved a land mark agreement on an Ecosystem Based Management approach and designation of protected Conservancies.  This agreement put the Mid Coast on the international leading edge of forest management.  

A New Era of Locally Controlled Forest Stewardship

In the late 1990’s, the coastal forest industry entered into an era of economic decline due to increasing logging cost and declining value of ‘hembal’ (hemlock and balsam) timber which makes up the majority of the forest inventory on the coast.    As a result, the industry consolidated as companies of all sizes amalgamated or were bought by the ones with strongest financial resources.  These economic problems were even more acute in the remote Mid Coast and by 2006 the only major licencees remaining was Interfor and Western Forest Products. 

With rising concern over industry consolidation and a need to revamp the stumpage system, the Province removed 20% of the major companies’ timber rights with the intent to reallocate them to the BC Timber Sales program, First Nation Forest and Range Opportunities and Community Forests.  Frustrated by the lack of control over local resources and the ‘export’ of logs with minimal local processing, Bella Coola saw the opportunity and lobbied hard to get a community forest tenure.  Working on behalf of the community, the Bella Coola Resource Society (BCRS) was successful and was awarded a Probationary Community Forest Agreement with an annual harvest rate of 30,000 m3.  The tenure is primarily located in the Bella Coola valley and includes the Nusatsum, Cacoohtin, Noomst, Salloompt, Tseapsehoolz and Noosgulch valleys. The tenure also stretches out the inlet to include Clayton Falls and Nooseseck valley (Green Bay).  A small parcel at Kwatan inlet is also included in the area based tenure.  To conduct the day-to-day work of running the forestry business, Bella Coola Community Forest Ltd was formed.  Start up financing was provided by 63 local investors that put in $253,000.

While the BCRS was pursuing the community forest tenure, the Nuxalk was also working to take advantage of the new tenuring opportunities and were successful in acquiring a community forest tenure with an annual harvest of 20,000 m3.  This tenure is primarily located in the South Bentinck and the lower Talchacko River tributary to the Bella Coola.  Furthermore, they were successful in negotiating a Forest and Range Opportunity 5 year non-renewable Forest Licence with an annual harvest of approximately 63,000 m3. 

With these tenures, the people in Bella Coola are now in a good position to manage the surrounding resources for maximum local benefit.  At the time of this writing, both the Nuxalk and BCCFL are working on acquiring the necessary plans and permits with the hope to initiate logging operations in 2008 or 2009.     


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