Provincial policy is inflaming forestry woes

BC policies are making an existing crisis of fibre supply worse, pushing mills to close and putting thousands out of their jobs, writes Josiah Haynes.

Indigenous forestry workers from Lax Kw’alaams First Nation. Photo from the Toronto Star.

BC’s forestry sector is experiencing major upheaval. After disastrous wildfires and the mountain pine beetle epidemic, provincial policy is the straw breaking the camel’s back.

After a year of what seemed like constant mill closures, Canfor is just the latest, shuttering operations in Prince George, Chetwynd and Houston. About 640 people are directly impacted in the three communities.

Northern Development Trust is forecasting three indirect job losses for every mill job that disappears. Those losses include support industries from trucking to retail and restaurants. When you add up those hundreds of direct job losses, you see thousands of people out of work.

The closure of mills in Prince George will hurt, but many people may be able to find other jobs in the city. Prospects are worse for residents of BC’s small forestry towns, like Chetwynd and Houston, where the loss of a mill could turn once thriving communities into ghost towns.

In a recent interview, Chetwynd’s chief administrative officer said: “We always talk about an economic spin-off, but the human spin-off here is just incalculable. This will uproot families. People are worried about making a living now, about putting food on tables and roofs over their children's heads. You can't really overemphasize how hard of a hit this is on a small community.”

A declining supply of fibre is at the heart of the closures, whether in the interior or Vancouver Island. If there aren’t enough trees being harvested to feed mills, they will have no choice but to close their doors.

Last I checked, BC isn’t running out of trees. So why the fibre shortage?

The BC government’s timber harvesting land base (THLB) is essentially a map of everywhere in the province where logging is both allowed and economically viable. Unfortunately, the BC government has been shrinking the THLB at a time when the industry already faces a shortage of fibre following the historic mountain pine beetle infestations and wildfires that gutted much of the previously available harvest.

British Columbians may remember the government's deferral of logging activities in 2.6 million hectares of old growth, announced at the close of 2021. As professional foresters are quick to explain, most people mistakenly believe old growth refers to an almost sacred classification of ancient California redwoods. While BC is indeed home to incredibly old and culturally valuable old growth trees, like those found on Vancouver Islands’ Cathedral Grove, old growth is technically a classification referring to trees older than 250 years on the coast and as young as 140 years in the interior’s drier climate.

The provincial government already strictly protects most of the oldest, largest, and most valuable old growth. In fact, perhaps the most authoritative study on the topic reports that 75% of BC’s old forests are either already protected or outside the THLB. In deferring an additional 2.6 million hectares, including otherwise ordinary forests, the government has helped make the current crisis worse.

Back in 2021, the Council of Forest Industries (COFI) said these deferrals “would result in the closure of between 14 and 20 sawmills in BC, along with two pulp mills and an undetermined number of value-added manufacturing facilities. This represents approximately 18,000 good, family-supporting jobs lost.”

As already announced mill closures begin to take effect in Port Alberni, Houston, Chetwynd, Prince George, Quesnel, Armstrong, Vanderhoof and other communities, COFI’s predictions appear to be coming true.

BC Premier David Eby at COFI's 2023 convention. Photo from COFI's Twitter.

Premier David Eby hinted at the anxieties being felt on April 14 when he spoke on the stage of COFI’s annual convention, having spent the previous six hours in meetings getting an earful from industry representatives. On the convention stage, numerous speakers referred to what one called an "everything everywhere all at once" approach to forest policy. As job losses continue and capital moves to the United States, it isn’t clear exactly what meaningful action the province will take to get things moving again.

While the Premier’s remarks at the conference were a welcome recognition that more is required, providing well-meaning job funds, quickening permit processing and offering the occasional bailout won’t be enough to save forestry communities.

Perhaps the most important thing the government could do to redress the fibre supply crisis is to halt and unwind the recent march of what increasingly appears to be needlessly excessive deferrals, given BC’s already impressive conservation record.

The government needs to return to balance and restore access to BC’s traditional working forests. Until then, the fibre crisis will continue to have devastating effects on the prospects of forestry towns and the livelihoods of their families.

Josiah Haynes is the content director at the Vancouver-based Resource Works Society, an educational and advocacy group championing the public interest in responsible natural resource development. Find him on LinkedIn and Twitter. 

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