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Dec Jan 2004/2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal

SPOTLIGHT

Securing fibre—and jobs—for smaller mills

A group of small sawmillers—that is creating much needed employment in northwestern BC—is banding together to work towards securing fibre in the midst of changing forest policies in the province.

The Kispiox Forest Products sawmill in South Hazelton has been forced to close, adding to unemployment in the Hazelton area of northwestern British Columbia.

By Jim Stirling

The focus is still fuzzy surrounding the implications of some of British Columbia’s new forest policy reforms. Small-scale sawmillers are worried in particular about one of the implications. Will any of the lumber volumes taken back from the major licensees—which is scheduled for re-distribution throughout the timber sales program, woodlot owners, community forests and aboriginal groups—filter down to them? And if and when that happens, will the fibre needed be available at an affordable price? A group of about 30 independent sawmillers in the Hazelton region of northwestern BC are out to explain to decision makers that they have an important role to play.

And if they are going to continue employing people and generating economic activity in an area desperate for both, they need a level playing field on which to operate. Under the current system, major licensees can bid against the little guys on any small volume sale that interests them. And they’ll be successful. What’s needed, suggest the small-scale sawmillers, is some creative thinking to introduce a diversity of timber sale sizes and tenure types. The Hazeltons have been ravaged by circumstances not of their making. The three adjacent Hazelton villages and surrounding rural communities have been caught in the protracted meltdown of Skeena Cellulose Inc in Prince Rupert and its predecessor companies. More recently, Kispiox Forest Products has been forced to close its doors. Unemployment in the Hazeltons is reportedly a staggering 97 per cent. Small businesses—like the independent sawmillers—are all that’s left. The surrounding forests are in a transition zone between coastal and interior types and have a high pulpwood content.

Large sawmill operations, like the one pictured above, often turn out a limited range of products, focusing on dimensional lumber.  A group of northwestern BC sawmillers is looking for a timber set aside for smaller mills, which often produce a range of niche market wood products.

But there’s no lack of entrepreneurial spirit among the small sawmillers, and there’s an ability to use what’s available from the forests for the manufacture of a range of niche market wood products. They are not in the 2x4 business here. For many of the region’s small sawmillers, 5,000 cubic metres represents a lot of wood. And jobs. The first good move the Hazelton sawmillers made was to approach Sharon Robertson. She’s the assistant manager of the Community Futures Development Corporation of Nadina in Smithers and a Hazelton resident. Robertson volunteered time to help the sawmillers get their points across.

Those efforts culminated in a meeting between the operators, local MLAs, mayors and Ministry of Forests personnel. Robertson pointed out that while there is a recent history of large licensees in the area, smaller operators have been very important. “There can be absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that small business is the backbone of our community. Paramount in our minds should be the contributions of these businesses to the economic security and social well-being of the Hazeltons,” she explained. The meeting proved fruitful. The Ministry of Forests responded to Robertson’s presentation by reinstating the phase-out of Category 2 timber sales in the Hazelton area. For some reason, the two to three year phase-out period for Category 2 sales allowed in other parts of BC did not apply to the Hazelton region.

All timber sales were immediately open to any category of bidders. Robertson says the reinstatement of Category 2 sales is a short-term assistance to the small sawmillers. “We need something longer term to address timber sale size, diversity and tenure types in the Hazeltons.” A community forest is a mid-long term possibility if it could be linked to some form of partnership. “We are looking down that trail,” reports Robertson. “We’re navigating through the process for longer term fibre access. We know we can’t depend on a single licencee to provide employment and economic security.” The Town of Smithers, coincidentally, is looking to establish a community forest.

The town, the Wet’suwet’en people and Newpro, a particleboard manufacturer in Smithers, are spearheading the effort. Robertson says reaction to the sawmillers’ plight has been positive from local and provincial perspectives. “Roger Harris has been very sympathetic to the issue and very helpful,” commends Robertson. That’s important. The Skeena MLA is also minister of state for forestry operations in BC’s Liberal government. Jim Forsythe was born in Hazelton and has been involved with the forest industry all his working life. He operates a small headrig milling operation on the Smithers side of Hazelton. He tries to keep three or four people working. “We target markets the big mills aren’t targeting. We can work around the wood we have,” says Forsythe.

Usually, that’s hemlock and balsam in the lower grades. It’s converted to a range of products from house cants to landscape decking and railway ties. “One of the biggest things here is fibre supply. It’s a 100 per cent open market and we’re competing with everyone else,” he points out. “And their pockets are deeper than mine.” Forsythe, like the other small sawmillers in the region, isn’t seeking a fibre handout. “We’d like to see timber set aside for small mills. Not free, but a fair market price for us,” he explains. “It’s the fibre issue that’s holding people back.” He says all the region’s mills are different, but about 15,000 cubic metres a year would go a long way towards keeping most of the smaller operations afloat. “Ten mills like mine and you’ve got 50 to 60 people working,” he says. Dennis Smith’s sawmill out toward Kitwanga is on a larger scale than most in the region. Full and part-time people total around 11.

He cuts an average of 75 to 80 cubic metres a day on a mill equipped with computerized setworks that can cut to accuracies of 1/32 of an inch. Smith says he specializes in milling second growth, in part because it’s a cheaper log to buy. He works with cedar, pine and hemlock to turn out a variety of products including panelling. Smith says he targets high-end products, but the distance from markets makes it challenging to find viable ways of using the wood left over. “For me, the crux of the fibre issue is that major licensees have a forest licence. I’m dependent on the right log being available,” says Smith. “We need to recognize the differences in operations and encourage the diversity,” he continues. “Not one rule for all.” Smith says tenure, like a five-year renewable licence for 10,000 cubic metres a year, would make a huge difference to his operation. “With five years under your belt, you can use it to build a solid business plan and look at improvements to the mill.”

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