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Barging In . . . How Smith Island Finds Its Sea Legs

Tue September 22, 2020 - West Edition #20

Smith Island LLC, located in Everett, Wash., opened its business in May 2020.
Smith Island LLC, located in Everett, Wash., opened its business in May 2020.
Smith Island LLC, located in Everett, Wash., opened its business in May 2020. Smith Island LLC, located in Everett, Wash., started in business in May 2020. The DX380LL-5 log loader efficiently loads and unloads barges when the company has a shipment.
Smith Island’s Rob Janicki (L) and Dennis Buss.
After leasing land, Janicki worked with Star Marine, a company that owns and operates barges.

It's rare that construction equipment has sea legs. Smith Island is a young company built to offer a solution to a specific problem. And it turned out that the solution meant making its machines comfortable working in a seaside location.

The Pacific Northwest is well known for both logging and barge transport. This small business was able to find its own way to be a bridge between the two.

Smith Island LLC, located in Everett, Wash., started in business in May 2020, in the midst of the global health pandemic. Owner Rob Janicki founded the company. It serves the logging community in Northwest Washington.

Tools for Job

After setting up their site and hiring a crew, Janicki and Dennis Buss purchased equipment for their operations. They invested in a Doosan DL550-5 wheel loader and a DX380LL-5 log loader from Cascade Trader, the local Doosan construction equipment dealer.

The decision came after looking at the financing and previous experience with the brand. Before working for Smith Island, Buss managed an operation for FORMARK, his previous employer. It used Doosan equipment and Buss was impressed with the reliability, fuel economy and performance.

The DL550-5 wheel loader is the second-largest model that Doosan offers. It features a hydraulic locking front differential, which improves the machine's traction. That's something that comes in handy when operating in wet environments. Meanwhile, the DX380LL-5 log loader has a loading height of 38 ft. and 5 in., allowing plenty of room to stack logs.

The wheel loader and log loader efficiently load and unload barges when the company has a shipment. The task sounds simple, but the heavy equipment has to traverse a narrow ramp. If the machines stray, they could end up in the water. The wheel loader and log loader also are used to transport and stack material in the staging area.

Pandemic Pressure

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many logging companies found themselves in a bind, including Janicki's family's business, Janicki Logging. Any harvested timber on nearby islands or wood meant for overseas transport was stuck. The effects on trade meant it had little to no way to get its timber moved. That is when Janicki realized he had to do something.

"We are working with the San Juan Island County residents to come up with ways to help them cost-effectively remove timber from their lands," Janicki said. "All the barge loading and unloading facilities in the region went out of business when the tariffs on China started happening. So, we didn't have a place to land our barges. We decided we needed to go ahead and start a brand-new business in the middle of the worst pandemic since 1918."

After leasing some land, Janicki worked with Star Marine, a company that owns and operates barges. Together, with Janicki Logging Company providing financing, it built a ramp and set up the operations. It now has a staging area for loading and unloading barges and also offers temporary storage.

The People

Janicki has been a part of the Washington forestry industry since he was young. His father, Stan, started Janicki Logging in 1957. Although Janicki made a detour to explore the computer business, he returned to the family logging business. The people pulled him back.

"The people are really good in this industry," Janicki said. "They're down to earth and honest. You can trust them."

Another person who has been instrumental to the start of the business is Buss. Some people know him as the procurement manager of Smith Island. Others refer to him affectionately as the Timber Yoda. He met the Janicki family when he was running facilities at tree farms in Washington. The relationship kept up from there. In all, he has about 48 years in the industry.

‘Hold the Salt,' Please

In the past, barges weren't always necessary for transporting timber. In fact, Buss remembers simpler times when boats towed rafted logs through the water.

"We used to route logs all the time," Buss said. "We'd dump logs in the water, and then we'd tow them from one place to the other, and it went on for years. Maybe 70 years we've been doing it, 80 maybe, and that's the way it was done. But what we have found now, most of these mills have a CoGen plant or boilers that feed their fry kilns."

CoGen plants use the process of cogeneration to produce electricity and heat at the same time. It's an efficient process that burns excess wood to produce the power. Unfortunately, saltwater can contaminate the wood and cause negative side effects. The salt will melt, coating the boiler and requiring an expensive cleaning process to remove the salt. And as the salt melts, it gives off an emission that pollutes the air. Shutting down the boiler and cleaning it of the salt is necessary.

Transporting trees in Puget Sound's water isn't an option anymore if companies want to keep a product versatile. The trees can't touch the salt water since, according to Buss, "as soon as the wood hits the water, it starts taking on salt like a cork." This is where the barges come in.

By Land or Sea

The decision to get into the barge business fell into place for Janicki and Buss. Being on a major coast and in a port, transportation by water makes a lot of sense. Not only does it give access to island locations, but traffic becomes less of an issue.

"Trying to get a truck through Seattle or Tacoma, you get one truck a day through there going south," Buss said. "And that's a big problem considering today's truck rates. As for rail, most of the local trains are unit trains that are going up to Canada with coal and coming back with fuel, so rail rates are tough too. The barge becomes the highway around all that traffic and puts it back on the water."

Pushing Past Pandemic

Even though Smith Island just got going, Janicki already has a vision for what it can become.

"Our main initial product is logs, but over time we expect to be handling containers and rock aggregate chips, bark and topsoil," Janicki said. "Pretty much any bulk product that people want to put on and off of the barge, we will have that capability.

"We have a lot of land there in Everett [Washington] and I could envision us getting into a much bigger distribution opportunity that goes beyond barges," Janicki said. "There could be a lot of synergy because there's more than 100 acres of potential industrial land in this area."

Though the pandemic prompted the creation of Smith Island, Janicki and Buss and look forward to the future of the company.

There is uncertainty, but there also is excitement for what they are achieving.

"That's why we're so excited about it, because there hasn't been any real barging done," Buss said.

This story also appears on Forestry Equipment Guide.

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