B.C. coastal forests and forest industry are at a tipping point

Vancouver Sun

Thanks to the ongoing cutting of old-growth forests, export of huge numbers of raw logs, and the failure of governments of all political stripes to act, we are running out of time to turn things around.

Anyone who knows the trends understands what we must do: conserve more of our rapidly diminishing older forests. We must invest in new mills to reverse decades of job losses. And we must ensure that those mills utilize wood from smaller logs from second-growth forests.

The good news is that one company leading by example. In October, Langley’s San Group announced it will invest $60 million to $70 million in three mills that will eventually employ up to 135 people. This marks the first time in well over a decade that any company has made a significant investment in a new coastal mill.

Three things are noteworthy about the investment:

  •  Its log supply will come from smaller, second-growth Douglas fir and hemlock trees.
  •  The mills will be located next to the Catalyst paper mill, meaning it will get badly needed wood chips from the sawmills while the sawmills get steam from the paper mill to use either for power or heat.
  •  Lastly, the logs utilized by the new mills will mean far less waste and fewer log exports.

This is the kind of development that Forests Minister Doug Donaldson should seize upon as evidence of how we can and must do things differently in a province where dangerous complacency has set in. This is especially the case when we think about the community in which those much-needed investments will be made.

That community is Port Alberni, where last year, shortly after Donaldson was appointed minister, Western Forest Products permanently closed its Somass sawmill, resulting in 80 lost jobs.

WFP is the largest forest company on B.C.’s coast. It has benefitted enormously from access to vast amounts of publicly owned forest. Yet it is the third-largest exporter of raw logs from our coast and has made no moves to invest in new mills. Meanwhile, the gap widens between the number of trees WFP logs and the number of logs it runs through its sawmills. Roughly two trees are logged for every one run through its mills.

In the past five years, log exports in B.C. averaged more than six million cubic metres a year. The economic and social consequences of that are enormous. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives B.C. Office conservatively estimates that by allowing that mass of unprocessed wood to be exported, B.C. is passing up the opportunity for an additional 3,600 or more men and women to be employed in manufacturing jobs — good-paying jobs that once drove economic activity in many smaller communities and could do so again.

Most of the logging on our coast is on publicly owned lands that are shared with First Nations. We need new policies — developed openly and in conjunction with coastal First Nations — that encourage more domestic manufacturing, discourage exports of raw or minimally processed logs and encourage more old-growth forest protection.

B.C. controls the price of our public natural resources, it has taxation powers and it has powers to reallocate publicly owned timber assets. It’s time it used those powers to protect more old-growth and stimulate the forest industry transition that common sense tells us must be made.

Torrance Coste is a Wilderness Committee campaigner; Gary Fiege is president of the Public and Private Workers of Canada; Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives; Joie Warnock is western regional director for Unifor.

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