By: The Working Forest Staff
Global News — As many as 200 logging trucks came rumbling through downtown Vancouver Wednesday, bringing the plight of B.C.’s embattled forestry sector to provincial leaders.
Government MLAs and the province’s mayors are gathered at the Vancouver Convention Centre for the annual Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) convention.
Convoy co-organizer Frank Etchart, who owns Nadina Logging Ltd., told Global News action to address mill closures and curtailments in the province is needed immediately.
“We want to bring awareness to the public and to our current sitting government that we are pressed for time, we don’t have time anymore,” he said.
“It’s happening. So we are asking for help and the only one who can help us right now is the government.”
Truckers began departing from various northern B.C. communities early Wednesday morning, and gathered in Merritt before pushing on to the Lower Mainland.
By 4 p.m., the convoy that some estimated to be 14 kilometres long began rolling down Hastings Street into the downtown core, blasting their horns along the way.
The convoy was met by hundreds of onlookers, some of them cheering and applauding the truckers. Others held signs voicing support for the forestry industry, reading “forestry feeds my family.”
Organizers said they understand the rally will disrupt traffic, but it will highlight an issue that is near and dear to small-town British Columbians who are losing jobs in the forestry industry.
The province says there have been four permanent mill closures in the B.C. interior, affecting between 500 and 700 workers, along with 13 indefinite closures affecting another 1,000 workers.
With curtailments included, the province estimates as many as 3,000 workers could be impacted.
Experts have said high log costs and lack of timber availability are making B.C.’s forestry industry unprofitable, noting there are fewer costs attached to the forestry sector in neighbouring Alberta.
Many in the industry have pointed to the stumpage fees forestry companies pay to the province to harvest trees as a key problem.
Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb said without a change in the policy, mills will likely remain shuttered.
“The mills can’t afford to bring the wood out of the bush because the stumpage is too high. So, it’s going to sit there until the stumpage rate comes down and they can afford to bring it in,” he said.
“We need the government to listen to us, they don’t seem to understand rural B.C. and the fact that we are the breadbasket, whether it be mining, ranching, forestry. That’s where the revenue comes from.”
The B.C. government has resisted a wholesale review of those fees, warning that lowering them could put B.C. at risk in ongoing and contentious softwood lumber negotiations with the U.S.
U.S. industry has previously argued low B.C. stumpage fees amount to an unfair subsidy of the industry in trade complaints.
B.C.s NDP government has instead pushed plans to promote value-added forestry products, such as mass timber technology.
The province has also announced a $69-million aid package, which includes an early-retirement bridging program and a new short-term forest employment program centred on fire prevention, community resilience projects and skills training.
Organizers took their concerns directly to Forests Minister Doug Donaldson outside the convention centre, surrounding him as they argued the money promised by the province is only a short-term solution.
“This isn’t something where you can say, ‘Oh, natural economics will take care of this,” one organizer said. “It needs to be fixed. It really, really does.”
Another asked the minister directly when decisions will be made that will get people back to work, which Donaldson didn’t answer.
Donaldson thanked the organizers for the protest, saying it “makes my job easier” by pushing the concerns to the forefront.
“I know that is a terrible situation for these small business people to be facing and our government is working with them to address their short-term needs,” he later said in a statement.
Donaldson added he committed to meeting with contractors again next week to discuss “other ways to assist their sector,” and said he is working to address “long-term systemic problems left behind by the previous government.”
The opposition BC Liberals have harshly criticized the NDP’s aid program as “half-baked,” pointing out that it will absorb funding that was previously dedicated to B.C.’s $25-million Rural Dividend Fund.
As Donaldson walked away from the organizers, one of them said the minister “used the wrong word: hope.”
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