As Alberta moves into an era of uncertainly thanks to low oil prices and a new government intent on ensuring “social justice,” the once have-not province immediately to its east faces an entirely different future – and according to one industry expert, the government in power has a lot to do with it.
That’s the upshot from Ian MacIver, general manager for Sakâw Askiy Management of Prince Albert, a partnership formed between six forest companies and two First Nations. MacIver sees good things happening in Saskatchewan, though he noted it’s been a while coming.
“It’s an industry that suffered through the (2008) crisis like everyone else,” he said, “but Saskatchewan is a real engine right now; there’s been a real kick-off once the Saskatchewan Party stepped into office to really try and make things a lot more business friendly. I think (the province) is definitely on the right trajectory.”
While Saskatchewan doesn’t have the same forest industry scope as British Columbia, MacIver said “we’re like the little engine that could,” noting that there have been some “real significant things” happening in the province recently.
For example, “one of our shareholders, Edgewood Forest Products announced probably two, three months ago that they’ll be investing $25 million in their sawmill in Carrot River this year.”
MacIver said the company is planning to bring in some European technology that “really focuses on the small logs and the less desirable-shaped logs…to improve their lumber recovery.”
He also noted that a buyer has been found for the currently-shuttered plywood mill at Hudson Bay, in eastern Saskatchewan.
“There’s not a whole lot more detail on that,” he noted, “but the hope is that they’ll be able to recommission (the Hudson Bay) mill. I think the numbers are there – 75% of the production has come back,” he said.
The Hudson Bay mill is one of three larger mills in Saskatchewan that are currently closed, the others being Prince Albert Pulp and Carrier Forest Products, both from the Prince Albert area.
With all that wood about to be cut, there’ll surely be issues getting it to market.
“The Ministry of Economy will tell you that there is probably room for two to three more medium to large size facilities available to be run – could be sawmills, could be some other technology that uses wood fibre – but…the condition of the roads is always a challenge,” MacIver said. “If you look at the metrics within Saskatchewan, for a population of 1.2 million people you’ve got the highest density of roads in North America – you’ve got 1.2 million people trying to look after all these roads in the province. So road maintenance becomes the issue, and maintenance ain’t very sexy. But give (Premier) Brad Wall and his crew credit: there’s been an awful lot of real strong initiative to go in and update and improve a lot of the existing road infrastructure, which are critical to…having year around access to world markets.”
The other side of the “getting the stuff to market coin” should surprise no one who’s been paying attention to the trucking industry’s issues: getting enough people to do the jobs.
“I think one of the big issues that everyone’s quite concerned about is the age distribution of the drivers,” MacIver said. “You pass these truck stops and there’s an awful lot of white hairs.”
The main thrust of the industry going forward, MacIver said, is getting to a true, results-based environment, a “less prescriptive, sort of, behaviour of the government” in which the province sets the rules, then gets out of the way.
“All of the companies have embraced and developed Environmental Management Systems…and a lot of maturity has come to the workforce and that’s a really good thing. It should be a hand in glove marriage and we really want to get there. We’re doing the planning – so let our professionals do the work and then measure us on that outcome.”
It isn’t as if the forest companies actually own the resource, he noted.
“We hold licences on government land – the people of the province still own the land – and our desire is to have a…mature adult-to-adult relationship.”
He admitted that it’ll take some time for that to happen, however.
Still, thinks are looking good across Rider Nation.
“There’s lots of great opportunity here in Saskatchewan,” MacIver said. “We have lots of investment happening, and we’ve got a forest management process we’re going through right now to develop a really strong, scientifically-based forest management plan for the next 20 years, and those are all really good things. We see a real bright future. The timber’s there; we’re just looking for good people to be involved with us.”