Forestry: A solid pillar of the Grande Prairie economy
By Tony Kryzanowski
Recognizing the important role forestry plays in the vitality of its economy, both Grande Prairie’s municipal government and Chamber of Commerce are lobbying to gain support for Canada’s position in the softwood lumber dispute. On the eve of the ninth Northern Alberta Forestry Show being held in this community located 450 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, both civic and business leaders recently took time to reflect on the importance of forestry to the history, growth, and future of Grande Prairie.
“Forestry is one of the pillars of the Grande Prairie area,” says city mayor Wayne Ayling. “The forest industry has driven our growth in such a way that Grande Prairie is a hotspot in western Canada right now.” The chair of the Grande Prairie and District Chamber of Commerce, Michael Ouellette, echoed that sentiment. “With forestry, the commitment is long-term,” he says. “When they do their planning, they are looking 50 to 100 years down the road.” The impact of that long-term outlook is reflected in the more stable economic spin-offs in the community.
Three major forest companies have a large presence in the community—Canfor, Weyerhaeuser, and Ainsworth Lumber—and they manufacture a variety of forest products including softwood lumber, pulp and oriented strandboard. There are also a number of independent primary and secondary forest products manufacturers located in the region. On the supplier side, Risley Manufacturing, a designer and manufacturer of logging equipment, is based in Grande Prairie and sells its products to the world market.
Forestry helps to balance and diversify Grande Prairie’s economy, says Ayling. “We’re extremely fortunate that forestry, oil and gas and agriculture are influential in our economy,” he says. “If one should be a bit soft, the others tend to be in a boom or upward cycle, meaning that our overall economy tends to grow regardless of the relative ups and downs of the different industries.” Both leaders remarked that forest companies have also been extremely sensitive to community needs and are actively helping to support them.
For example, Ainsworth made the largest charitable donation in the history of Grande Prairie—a $1.5 million commitment distributed over 10 years to the Community Foundation of Greater Grande Prairie. As its name states, the foundation funds community groups, and in the past five years has distributed $3 million to different organizations. Ayling adds that Weyerhaeuser and Canfor have also consistently donated much appreciated time, money and resources in support of various community groups.
One example of all three companies working together involves activities on Arbor Day, when students from city and area schools take field trips to various forest locations. Forest company employees volunteer their time to educate students about the importance and proper management of the forest resource. The cost of busing the students is paid from proceeds gathered at the Northern Alberta Forest Show. The show itself is a big boost to local business, Ouellette says, attracting a lot of families to the community who might not otherwise visit Grande Prairie. “The biggest response we get is that people are just amazed at how vibrant Grande Prairie is,” he says.
Ayling says the show is also an excellent opportunity to exchange technical information. “It’s a way for our local forest industry companies to find out about leading edge technologies,” he says, “and it gives them a chance to brag about their accomplishments, which are very substantial in this area.” Given the city’s positive long-term relationship with the forest industry, both politicians and business leaders have recently answered the call to come to industry’s aid in lobbying decision makers —both nationally and internationally—on the hardship caused by the American tariff on softwood lumber. Although the tariff has not yet resulted in job losses at the local level, “certainly it’s a topic of conversation,” says Ayling. For its part, members of city council have participated in several lobbying initiatives.
The first involved direct lobbying against the softwood lumber tariff in Washington, DC and more recently participating in a five-member Canadian delegation on a two-week, multi-city tour in the US, drumming up support for the Canadian position against the tariff. “We as a city council have also written to mayors of major cities in the United States,” says Ayling. “We have also banded together with other forestry capital cities through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to create a lobby effort in the United States.” Ayling says American civic politicians are supportive of the Canadian position. While lumber prices are currently low, these local politicians believe the tariff will ultimately result in higher lumber prices longer term—making housing less affordable for Americans.
The problem is convincing higher level American negotiators, who seem to be taking their direction from the American forest industry lobby. Ouellette says the Grande Prairie Chamber of Commerce recently sponsored a resolution at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce annual general meeting urging the federal government to make a negotiated settlement of the softwood lumber dispute a priority. “We want it front and centre with the government,” says Ouellette. The resolution passed unanimously.
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