Bottleneck hits West Coast log operations

Times are tough for West Coast forestry crews, which are struggling to survive as the lack of space at Chinese ports brings New Zealand’s log exports to a halt.

China’s sawmills remain closed and few logs are being unloaded at its ports.

There have been reports that some logging gangs have already been laid off, while others have scaled back operations.

Ngai Tahu Forestry, the largest forest owner on the West Coast, said it had been affected by the slow-down of exports to China, but declined to comment on the extent of the impact.

Ngai Tahu Farming chief executive Andrew Priest said the business was working closely with contractors and suppliers to sustain business as usual.

Ngai Tahu’s about 25,000ha of production pine supplied the West Coast’s two remaining sawmills at Stillwater and Ruatapu, and the Gladstone plywood factory, as well as Canterbury mills and export logs.

A West Coast logging contractor, who declined to be named, said his crews were down to 80% production, or a four-day week.

"We are cleaning up bits and pieces of the harder stuff and haven’t had a day off yet.

"I’ve seen it before. A lot of the younger guys get in too deep and think it’s all beer and skittles — and it is not. If they have debt they are more vulnerable.

"Some are a lot worse off than I am. We are lucky because a lot of our stuff is domestic."

Contractor Ross Sadler said he was focused on keeping his six-man crew working; it had cut about half its usual amount of logs this month and he did not know when it would have to stop.

The crew was "flat-out" working full weeks, and its logs were stockpiled for export from Port of Nelson. However, Mr Sadler did not know if all the logs would be exported.

He was keen to keep his crew working so he did not lose his staff, but also had a firewood business which they could turn to as back-up.

Canterbury-based Forest Management Group director Glenn Moir said its two West Coast crews had not been affected by the log export slow-down.

"Contractors in the regions which are export dependent are struggling and crews are on reduced hours," Mr Moir said.

The company’s West Coast crews supplied the Canterbury domestic market, while its two Canterbury crews supplied prime pruned logs to the Westco Logan mill at Ruatapu and IPL at Gladstone.

NZ Forest Owners Association president Peter Weir said New Zealand sawmills took about 40% of the harvest.

Sawmills supplying the housing market bought stiffer and higher quality sawlogs or knot-free logs from pruned trees.

Exporters had nowhere else to send their industrial grade (unpruned) logs but China.

A substantial reduction in harvesting was likely to have a major and rapid effect on the large workforce in trucking and port loading, Mr Weir said.

Nelson-based Stuart Drummond Transport managing director Brodie Drummond said the company moved about 70,000 tonnes of West Coast logs, about 30% of which came from Ngai Tahu Forestry blocks.

 - Helen Murdoch


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