Wood supply study shows local biomass potential

By Daniel Adam
Staff Writer

A recent study on Boundary Waters Forest Management Corp.’s Sustainable Forest License (SFL) may help bring mills and biomass facilities to the Rainy River District.

“Several opportunities could allow for the expansion of existing facilities and the potential for new wood fibre facilities,” says a Boundary Waters press release.

The release says biomass represents the largest volume of unutilized fibre available in the forest. The release defines biomass as the unused portions of the tree that are available as harvest residue. Biomass can be used to produce fuel or electricity.

The province of Ontario has been encouraging the use of biomass in recent years, with their recent Forest Biomass Action Plan, released this past spring in hopes of encouraging sustainability, creating jobs, and supporting economic development.

The Boundary Waters release says their forest could support a large biomass facility at 800,000 cubic metres, or several modest biomass facilities at about 300,000 cu. m. each.

Because of the wood supply study, Boundary Waters general manager Ian Armstrong says they are now on a list where bio-economy companies can see a lot of their information and determine if there’s an opportunity for them.

“I personally believe there is an opportunity,” says Armstrong. “There’s lots of infrastructure and people — you could easily build a facility of some kind.”

He says there are some mills that are in the queue to receive supply agreements from BW that have expressed interest, but that the most prominent possibility for the forest is a new biomass facility.

“I think we’re very well set up for it here,” says Armstrong. “So we just want people to realize there are some really good opportunities here and we’re exploring them.”

He noted that Boundary Waters is still maintaining their current mills, and that potential new ones will simply add, and not take away from the current mills’ supplies.

“We’re working on creating new opportunities in the forest,” says Armstrong. “And we’re working with our current licensees to increase their capacity.”

Apart from biomass potential, the results of the wood study supply also identified possible opportunities with white and red pine, cedar, and white birch. Armstrong says BW is active in trying to bring in any sort of new facilities.

“We’re more than willing to work with anybody to try and create a new opportunity down here,” he says. “We’ve got some wood, so let’s get something happening.”

Of 48 forest management units, Armstrong says Boundary Waters is one of the two largest SFLs in Ontario. He says the Crown issues the SFL — a license that allows you to manage and harvest a forest.

Boundary Waters essentially manages the Crown forest in the region, deciding who cuts when and where, working with shareholders to determine allocations. It consists of 16 shareholders representing local mill facilities, First Nations, Métis, independent loggers, and municipalities.

Boundary Waters also does forest management planning, silviculture, renewal, and tending. Silviculture is planting, seeding, and scarification — BW oversees this since they are responsible for the regeneration of the forest.

The forest boundary spreads east to Atikokan, and west to Lake of the Woods. North, Armstrong says it goes to about Sioux Narrows and halfway up to Ignace. South, the boundary neighbours the U.S. border, but dodges Quetico Provincial Park.

Armstrong says the Boundary Waters forest was once made up of two different forests. He says Rainy Lake Tribal Resource Management and Resolute Forest Products decided to create a shareholder SFL, amalgamating the Crossroute and Sapawe forests to create Boundary Waters. BW then took over from the two previous owners as Crown-land caretakers in April 2020.

“They did a very good job,” says Armstrong. “We’re continuing that good work; making some improvements, and making new opportunities available.”

Boundary Waters have maintained their Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI) designation, meaning they are a certified forest.

“We’ve been able to continue all that work and do it all at a good cost,” he says. “I’ve never heard anybody say we’re not doing a good job. And all those people are shareholders — if we weren’t doing a good job, they’d let us know right away.”

Though they’ve been successful, Boundary Waters has had their fair share of unforeseen challenges. Armstrong says they are constantly dealing with labour shortages. He says trucking is also a big issue, as is getting young people interested.

“When your average age of a person working in the bush is like 60, you’ve got issues coming,” says Armstrong. “So we’re working on that as well.”

He says in resource-based industries especially, weather is another major factor.

“Climate change is creating some real issues for us,” says Armstrong. “We’re adapting and we’re making changes, but climate change is a big one.”

This year, flooding in the area has meant lots of emergency repairs for them.

“We managed to stay on top of it, but that really caught us off guard,” says Armstrong. “We realized with things like climate change in the future, that although this is something you can’t plan for, you can be ready for it.”

Last year, when things were far less wet, fires in the northwest caused a six-week shutdown for Boundary Waters. Armstrong says all forest activity was suspended.

“We couldn’t do anything.” he says. “We couldn’t harvest or build roads, and people were out of work. It was very, very serious.”

Should something like that occur again, Armstrong says he has now put measures in place allowing some flexibility to operate in times like those.

“It’s very likely it will happen again,” he says. “But we’ll be better prepared for it.”

Through the challenges Boundary Waters has faced, Armstrong says they’ve adapted as needed.

“We’re constantly dealing with [problems], but we’re moving ahead,” he says. “We’re keeping the mills going, keeping people working, and creating new jobs. In my mind, that’s been successful.”