West of the oilsands, another sector suffers its own ’existential crisis’

November 13, 2019

By: The Working Forest Staff

THE NATIONAL POST, By Gabriel Friedman— If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around, it doesn’t much matter if it makes a sound, except to philosophers. But if a sawmill closes in a remote British Columbia town, where the internet is patchy, the impact is all too real even if no one outside hears about it.

That’s about what retired forester Jerry Canuel was thinking to himself in September when an annual logging show rolled into his hometown, Merritt, B.C., also known as Canada’s country music capital, where a once-thriving forestry sector has been slowly disappearing.

At the show, axes were thrown, logs were sawed and Canuel bumped into so many out-of-work loggers and millworkers that it spurred an epiphany for him and some friends: If they all descended on Vancouver, about three hours southwest of Merritt, it might bring some attention to the troubled state of the province’s forestry sector.

 “There’s so much silence,” said Canuel, who remains an advisor to Aspen Planers Ltd., which operates the lone sawmill in Merritt. “There’s just nothing being said and a lot of people don’t know the significance of what’s going on in the Interior.”

At least nine sawmills in B.C. this year have been shuttered while an estimated 47 others have cut shifts or curtailed production, leaving many remote communities economically stranded. The Ministry of Forestry estimates about 8,000 people, or roughly 15 per cent of those employed in the sector in B.C., have been touched by the cuts, a massive blow to the province, which produces about half of Canada’s lumber with an annual export value of $14.2 billion.

“Everyone thinks about the sawmills, and the people who work there, but it’s also contractors and people who deliver wood to the mill, mechanics, equipment sellers,” said Todd Chamberlain, president of the Interior Logging Association. “In the smaller towns, it’s right down to the people who cut your hair.”

Unfortunately, forestry, like oil and gas in Alberta, is another major resource sector experiencing an intense bust cycle, and it’s also one where the largest companies are seeking growth opportunities outside Canada, mainly in the U.S., further fuelling the sense of discord in the West.

The B.C. Interior, where most of the wood is cut, has been particularly hard hit by a mountain pine beetle epidemic, which peaked around 2006 and left huge swathes of previously wooded areas bare. But the rest of the province has not been spared, as record forest fires and a long-running trade dispute with the U.S. have taken their toll.

Now, with the timber supply projected to shrink until 2025, and a recovery expected to take decades, companies are “rationalizing” their operations in B.C., consolidating mills to gain efficiencies of scale.

That some of B.C.’s largest timber companies are also investing in a rapidly growing timber basket in the U.S. South, while some of the smaller companies are feeling the squeeze, has not passed unnoticed.

The weekend following the logging show in Merritt, a convoy of big rigs snaked out at 9 a.m. and headed for Vancouver, where mayors from around the province had gathered for a conference.

“We thought we would have like 50 trucks at the most,” Canuel said. “Well, my goodness, I think we had in the neighbourhood of 267.”

Along the way, people huddled on overpasses and the sides of the road, holding up signs and cheering on the convoy, which continued to grow along the way until it stretched for several kilometres by the time it reached the city.

Canuel felt strongly the convoy shouldn’t be deemed a protest or confrontational. After all, who could be blamed for the mountain pine beetle and fires that wiped out the trees?

But with 95 percent of B.C.’s timber located on public land, there has been a populist backlash against the largest companies including Canfor Corp., Interfor Corp., West Fraser Timber Co. Ltd., Tolko Industries Ltd., Western Forest Products Inc. as well as others.

“The consolidation of volume into these four or five companies in the province is taking out all these small companies,” Canuel said. “What we’re trying to say to the government is, goodness gracious, what do you want in this province? Do you want multinationals, five of them, controlling all of this province?”

Even on the coast, where the mountain pine beetle has had less impact because of the different tree species, there is a similar hostility toward the largest companies

For example, Interfor in September closed its Hammond mill in Maple Ridge, saying a lack of fibre meant it was operating on one shift even though it’s designed for two shifts. The company tied the closure to a “reconfiguration” of its coastal operations, saying it wanted to sell the real estate and “repatriate” working capital.

But Al Bieksa, president of the United Steelworkers Local 2009, accused the company of doing the opposite of repatriation.

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Your comments.

  1. Bruce Grunert says:

    The NDP can be blamed for the mountain pine beetle. When the infestation first broke out in Tweedsmuir Park they decided not to log it as they feared they would lose the green vote. They are the ones to blame.

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