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There's a few knots in the trees with B.C.'s timber supply
By Jim Stirling
Howls of protest are likely to greet whatever decision is ultimately made. An all party legislative committee representing the British Columbia government is scheduled to report in August on how to unravel the Gordian Knot of timber supply.
The issue was catapulted into urgency by the explosion and fire that destroyed the Babine Forest Products sawmill near Burns Lake in January. It was underlined in April by an eerily similar appearing incident at Lakeland Mills in Prince George.
Both incidents claimed two lives, injured many sawmill workers and remain under investigation.
Hampton Affiliates and The Sinclar Group, the stricken mills’ respective owners, need to know the amount, type and location of available timber into the future before making any rebuild decisions. The legislative committee is charged with supplying answers to those questions.
“What’s been emphasized again and again is the need for caution,” Norm MacDonald told reporters. MacDonald is the legislative committee’s deputy chair and MLA for Columbia River-Revelstoke in the B.C. southern interior.
“There is no silver bullet, there is no home run solution. We are looking at incremental changes. The questions and concerns around fibre are real but all our recommendations have to be based on what is scientifically sound, sustainable and long lasting.”
One would certainly hope so. But this is very much an emotionally charged issue. Hundreds of direct and indirect jobs are at stake, along with the economic health of the communities involved where forestry feeds families.
One of the fears is that the government will opt to take from Peter to pay Paul. Apart from being fundamentally unfair to other operations, that type of crude band-aid approach would simply serve to exacerbate the realities of a fibre supply crunch coupled with sawmilling overcapacity.
The situation will get worse before any improvement as a legacy of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. The Burns Lake region was one of the hardest hit by the beetles in the province.
The Peter/Paul syndrome is close coupled with another political concern. B.C.’s Liberal Party has been steadily losing ground in the popularity polls to the provincial NDP. How the government handles the timber supply issue is under the microscope and not just in the rural hinterlands. The fact both mill explosions and fires occurred in ridings represented by Liberal cabinet ministers further clouds the issue.
The government could choose to ignore the advice from its legislative committee, assuming it will indeed involve recommendations “based on what is scientifically sound, sustainable and long lasting,” as assured by MacDonald. The government could quite simply adopt the politically expedient route, try to cobble up some additional fibre to offer the mill owners and leave them with the tough decisions.
There have already been moves in B.C. to look at publicly owned forest lands that have been previously excluded from AAC calculations. For example, nearly 9,500 hectares of Crown land, previously off limits to forest companies, have now been made available to them in the Fraser TSA adjacent to B.C.’s Lower Mainland region. The timberlands were previously protected under the visual quality objectives of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
The potential impacts on the excluded lands is troubling to regional tourism operations which market pristine vistas. A similar kind of landscape reappraisal is going on in the Burns Lake and Prince George regions to accommodate the possible timber requirements of the Babine and Lakeland rebuilds. If the grapevine is given credence, little is sacred in the government’s efforts to scrounge up additional volumes from other previously off-limit sources.
Hampton and Sinclar face tough decisions. Both companies lost their sawmills, but their planer operations remain intact. Hampton continues to operate its Decker Lake Forest Products specialty mill to the west of Burns Lake. Some expansion there might be an option or a consolidated re-location to the Babine site.
In Prince George, the Sinclar Group has already closed its nearby Winton Global sawmill in part because of diminishing timber supply and to underwrite Lakeland’s future.
Babine and Lakeland ownership and management have undoubtedly been preoccupied with scenario juggling about the timber requirements to justify and sustain possible rebuilds. They’re also concerned about the official determination of the explosions’ causes and the fate of insurance claims.
A further consideration concerns the markets available for wood products manufactured from a fibre basket of smaller and generally declining quality timber. Those types of determinations are required to dictate what type of new sawmill would be required to produce the highest quality timber products at the lowest unit costs.
Another key issue in both Burns Lake and Prince George areas is the availability of skilled workers to operate and maintain new mills and supply them fibre. Personnel shortages are already acute in many interior regions. It would likely take at least 18 months from a rebuild decision before any new operation is ready for start-up. Many displaced workers have already had no other choice but to move on and take other jobs. More in both mill and bush sides will follow suit and new trainees and graduates obviously lack the experience factor.
It is, indeed a Gordian Knot. But legend has it Alexander the Great didn’t even attempt to unravel Gordius’ knot. He simply slashed it with his sword and moved on.
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