Forestry roading contractors work out of public sight and usually do not have high visibility. In the first feature we have ever published on a forestry contractor, Alan Titchall talks to Malcolm Edridge, the managing director of Edridge Contracting, one of the larger earthworks contractors in the Nelson/Marlborough region.
Your business is located half way between Nelson and Blenheim at Pelorus Bridge so you must be right in the middle of the region’s forest?
Yes, our main yard at Pelorus is exactly halfway between Nelson and Blenheim, with staff based in both centres. We are based there because my father, Mike, and mother, Judi, have always lived there.
When the first private forest company took over the Crown-owned forest in this area around 30 years ago, we were just doing small bits and pieces. The Marlborough forest was just coming on stream, so the forest owners decided to tender out the roading work to one contractor rather than use several smaller contractors and that’s how the business sort of started, the company grew from there starting with just a workshop. Taylor’s Contracting got the Nelson side, and Mike Edridge Contracting got the Marlborough side.
Basically, there’s the Nelson regional forest and Marlborough regional forest with the latter still on first rotation. In Nelson, the forests are onto their second and third rotation.
When I joined the business 17 years ago we had five staff, and now we’ve got 50, but not all working in forestry.
For a long time, forestry was around 80 percent of our work but that’s changed over the past few years, with now only 40 percent of our people in the forest side of the business.
Your Father founded the business, is he still working?
He’s been in the business for probably 30 years now. Over the past few years I’ve taken over the reins, but Mike still has a lot of involvement.
He’s trying to be semi-retired (which doesn’t always work) and he’s usually at the office from 4.30am every morning to ensure he knows what’s happening and to offer his opinion.
Is forestry work seasonal in this region?
We’re fortunate here that we can generally work all year around. We don’t get shut down like the far north; the weather and ground conditions mean we can work pretty consistently throughout the year.
What percentage would be new roads and what would be maintenance?
Over the past 15 years, it would be predominantly new roads and skid sites. We are heading towards the end of a first forest rotation after which we go back to upgrading those roads and skid sites to prepare for the second rotation of harvesting.
Do you use different gear and machinery than you would if you were doing normal roading?
All our excavators are heavy duty machines with purpose-built cabs for protection, and thumb attachments for handling trees, as well as heavy-duty grouser plates on the track gear and other guarding.
So, typically it’s bigger, stronger gear than what you would use for normal roading. We predominantly use gear in the 30-40 tonne range.
Do you have any brand preference?
We run Caterpillar as we have a history with the brand. Dad mainly had Caterpillar equipment, and I did my time as a diesel mechanic with Gough Cat at the Nelson branch for 10 years after leaving school.
I then went to the Christchurch branch and came back up here and ran the Nelson branch before joining the family company back in 2001.
We currently have three Cat D8 dozers, a Cat D6 dozer, two Cat graders, and a few Volvo dumpers as well as 12 Cat excavators and three rollers working in the forest.
Is forestry work hard on machines?
This is a high capital industry, and we work the machines hard, so they do wear out faster than in other contracting industries. Because of this, we have a solid maintenance programme in place to maximise the life of the machines.
As the machines are working hard pushing dirt day in, day out, and ripping rock out on virgin roads, we are also burning a lot of diesel. A subdivision job, for example, is a lot lighter work, and the fuel consumption and wear on the machines are hugely different.
What’s involved in creating a new forestry road?
The forest planners provide us with a general earthworks prescription or spec that is designed to allow big rigs the ability to get up into the forest. The big 50 tonne trucks and five-axle trailers need to be able to get to the skid sites and come back down with a full load safely.
To get the heavy equipment into a forest, skid sites have to be created along the road about every 750 metres to a kilometre. The forest terrain is very different from your standard road building environment, and we use a harvesting contractor to do what is called ‘road line salvage’ where they clear the trees off the new road alignment and skid sites to allow us to build the roads and skids.
The road spec is generally for a six-metre formation and a five-metre pavement. On the straights, we narrow the road and then widen it right out on the corners to allow the log trucks enough room to get around.
Normally, a road starts as a basic track used by logging contractors to harvest trees and bring the logs down. We widen the track, bench it out, cut to fill, and compact, or track roll, with dozers and diggers. Once it’s formed up, we’ll then compact it with a roller and then put metal on top.
The aggregate is generally some sort of AP65, whatever is most suitable at the time.
What goes on the road also depends on the season. In the winter you’ve got to place rock on the road; in the summer you might get away with just putting some sort of aggregate on top.
Have you got your own quarry?
Yes, and we also use other local river material quarries. Our quarry resource is a greywacke type material, but a lot of our aggregate comes from the Wairau River.
However, it’s getting harder and harder to get resource consent to extract material from the river.
We have four mobile crushing crews using mainly Powerscreen jaw and cone crushers with scalping screening plants. We also supply other roading contractors with aggregate and processing solutions.
Is the contract itself any different with forestry work?
Forestry infrastructure is generally a different contract from normal roading contracts. It’s based on hourly rates instead of being a unit rate/measure and value contract.
We go out and do an hour’s work, and we get paid for an hour, so in some ways it’s less risk but generally with hourly rate work you also get lower rates.
A lot of people will say an hourly rate job is easy as you just carry on going and take your time and you’ll get paid. But it doesn’t work like that. As a forestry earthworks contractor, you need to develop a solid relationship with the forest company based on trust as they expect value out of a contract.
Among the advantages of being on hourly rate is consistency. On a sub-division, for example, poor weather can cause delays and extra costs with half of the crew being parked up.
The forest doesn’t work like that. As I said, you get a lot more consistent work which brings the rate down for the forest company, so it’s a win-win for client and contractor.
Is the work rotational?
It’s a funny type of business because a particular forest might take two years to complete road and harvest. You might just go in and do a short section and then go away and do another forest while the harvesting contractors catch up with their harvesting then come back again.
So, we’re dancing around these forests all the time with two or three person crews. A dozer and a digger form the roads and skids, and then the gravel trucks lay gravel, and you’re going round like this all the time moving from block to block. Generally, we have been putting around 100 skid sites a year; 30-40 kilometres of new roading; and upgrading 25-30 kilometres of roading a year.
When they have finished harvesting a forest, we do a post-harvest clean up that involves making sure the drainage is in place and tracks are pulled back, and all the environmental controls are in place, and then we step away for the replanting.
If there’s no damage to the road, i.e. due to weather events, we might not return for some time. If there’s a wash-out, then we will go back in and fix it up. So, there’s a certain amount of forest road maintenance that we do. However, in general, as soon as the harvesting and planting is done, it drops right off.
Are you also involved in local council roads?
Yes, we do work for the main NZTA roading maintenance contractor in the Marlborough region. The contract is a joint one covering local roads and the state highways.
Do your crews specialise in forestry or roads or can they alternate?
Generally, the forest guys stick with the forest. You get a certain type of person that likes to work in the forest, and they’re usually guys that like the outdoors, like to work hard, and are happy to work in a semi-isolated environment with minimal supervision.
The hours involved can be long. Travel from home to the job site can be up to an hour there and back, and the machines work 10 hours, so it’s a 12-hour working day.
The working conditions can be quite challenging, especially in the winter. Generally, Marlborough is quite steep as well, so it’s not for the faint-hearted. The operators also have to be pretty skilled at assessing job site conditions as they go.
On the plus side, they are making ‘new’ roads, and there are not many places in New Zealand now that you get to make a new road. You put a dot on the tree here and a dot on the tree up there and get to make a road from scratch.
This means the guys get to use their skills and knowledge to create a road from nothing whereas, on a new subdivision, for example, everything is done by GPS and has to be bang on and perfect all the way.
“The working conditions can be quite challenging, especially in the winter. Marlborough is quite steep as well, so it’s not for the faint-hearted.
The operators also have to be pretty skilled at assessing job site conditions
as they go.”
How do you get on with security and safety in the forest?
Security in the forest has changed over the years, but now all the forest blocks have a locked gate at the main entrance. Still, at times we do come across people in the block who aren’t authorised to be in there.
We work closely with the logging contractors when we are tracking and pushing over trees in order to ensure the safety of all the crews working in the block together.
Nelson Forests is the main forestry company that we work for, and they are a step above in regard to their safety systems and what they expect from their contractors.
They have been fantastic with providing guidance and setting the bar to a high level, so we have been ahead of the game all the way when it comes to safety.
We have run daily toolbox meetings and have had drug and alcohol testing in place for years, as well as providing regular training opportunities for the operators around safety and environmental practices.
Is the PPE any different?
Pretty standard – hard hats, high-vis and steel toe, lace-up boots, but you don’t have to have long longs, which is quite an attraction for those who like their shorts and singlets.
Generally, our people are sitting in machines for 10 hours in air-conditioned cabs, so exposure to UV radiation is limited.
We don’t like to make blanket rules for wearing PPE; it should be used when it can help reduce the risk of injury or illness from exposure to a hazard and not worn ‘just because’.
What about fire risk in summer?
Marlborough is a lot worse than Nelson with this risk, as it is a lot drier. There is a six-stage fire risk system in place with an index that, as it rises, means different precautions are put in place.
Standard precautions include machines being equipped with two types of fire extinguishers, and there are rules around doing hot work, i.e. welding, in the forest. Machines are checked on a daily basis to look for any leaks or build up of flammable material.
Once fire season starts, a daily assessment is made by the rural fire authority, the forest owners, and the individual logging crews based on certain parameters, i.e. wind speed, temperature, location.
The logging crews are probably at the highest risk, as they have wire ropes going that can cause sparks, as well as chainsaws that are more a risk than general earthworks machines.
Extra precautions involve stopping work in the forest by a certain time, banning all hot work and having detailed emergency response plans in place.
We also have forests that are only harvested in the winter, and then we will exit out of there in November and come back again in April once the fire season is over.