By Jim Stirling
“Strong Past, Bright Future” is how British Columbia’s provincial government assesses the province’s forest sector. The provincial forest industry goals are creating healthy, resilient forests, a diverse, globally competitive industry and stable communities and First Nations.
Few would argue against such objectives. What the plan is short of, though, is what all such politically correct Motherhood statements lack: a detailed and funded path to achieving them. There have been positive government announcements in the last few months and more on them in a moment. But the overshadowing reality for the forest industry is the lack of merchantable timber available in the B.C. Interior. This legacy of the mountain pine beetle epidemic surprises no one. But when reality sets in, the perspective changes.
Last fall, Steve Thomson, B.C.’s Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, informed a Prince George audience that the Annual Allowable Cut (AAC) for the Prince George Timber Supply Area could decline to 6.2 million cubic metres by 2020, down from 12.5 million cubic metres in 2011. The same trend is predicted—to a greater or lesser extent—in other regions around the interior.
The actual annual cut is a more informative indicator of what’s truly happening on the land base. Licencees are mindful of their internal responsibilities and situations and adjust them accordingly to the changes in wood product market demands. Often the actual cut is less than the allowable one.
The industry recognizes a sawmilling overcapacity in the province. Mills have in some ways become victims of their own efficiency. Several pundits predict two or three more permanent sawmill closures in the interior. Others may have to adopt shorter operating hours, which will require a co-operative approach between licencees and unions.
On the plus side, the provincial government has recognized, albeit belatedly, the urgency to accelerate reforestation and rehabilitation of lands impacted by the beetles and wildfires. The provincial Forests for Tomorrow budget is now approaching $75 million. The government has a goal to replant 300,000 hectares within five years. The Forest Enhancement Society is a recently-created government agency. It has apparently been allocated $85 million to “fireproof” potentially vulnerable communities from wildfires, and rehabilitate forests damaged by the mountain pine beetle.
Another $25 million is to be funneled into a program to help small forestry-reliant communities through economic transition. (Wasn’t there—or maybe there still is—a series of community-based, provincially-funded organizations around the regions hardest hit by the beetle epidemic which were charged with the same task? There were positive results from them in some cases, but most recommendations from those organizations involved diversifying local economies. Any high schooler could have told them that for nothing. What was and is needed is creative thinking and dialogue on how to make that diversification happen and what form it should take).
The B.C. Liberals are very good at announcements, especially ones containing impressive dollar figures and statistics. What they’re not as good at is actually making the dollar figures available to the people who can put them to work where they’re most needed. The jury’s still out on these recent reforestation and rehabilitation funding allocations.
The issue of “fireproofing” communities looks likely to gather momentum in 2017. The changing climate can best be characterized by the word ‘extremes’. Drought, flood and wildfires are all becoming more frequent, unpredictable and extreme.
Slave Lake, Kelowna and Fort McMurray in 2016 have many people around B.C. justifiably concerned. The fear is the same can happen to any community. In so many instances around the interior, the last subdivision abuts the forest. Work to clean up adjacent fallen timber and create effective buffer zones has begun around several communities. But to properly tackle the issue is beyond the financial capability and expertise of many municipalities. A broader provincially-based program would seem to be more appropriate than a piecemeal one.
Fire control and suppression experts would have to design each community’s protection program specifically. A cookie cutter approach couldn’t deliver value for money. Too many site specific variables influence wildlife behavior, and thus the types and scope of protection plans required.
There could be several advantages to launching such a wildfire community program where it’s most needed. It’s pro-active in human terms and much cheaper than dealing with the aftermath of another Fort McMurray. The initiative would also be politically advantageous. But more to the point for the local and regional forest industries, the program stimulates employment opportunities for workers and equipment.
Roads may have to be built, wood has to be felled, transported and processed. During times of falling annual timber cuts, every little opportunity helps not just for loggers, but in the communities where their money is circulated.
Licencees may be able to benefit from some of the additional fibre created during wildfire protection initiatives. Smaller local value added and secondary remanufacturing plants could certainly use the feedstock. Many of their operations are consistently seeking additional fibre sources to survive.
Experts in diverse disciplines are exploring ways of making our newly planted forests more resilient to insects, wildfires and changing climate. A similar approach can help protect vulnerable forest communities and their residents from the dangers of volatile wildfires.
In the end, it is the people working in the forest industry who are key to achieving the bright future part of the provincial government’s slogan.
On the Cover:
The theme for the upcoming Council of Forest Industries (COFI) convention in April is “Forestry for the Planet. Forest Products for the World” which helps underline the renewable nature of wood and its suitability for green-conscious building construction. But a big topic of discussion is going to be what Canada can do to strike a new softwood lumber deal with the U.S. Read all about the convention beginning on page 10. (Cover photo courtesy of Resolute Forest Products)
A new beetle battle in B.C.
In the wake of the mountain pine beetle, spruce beetles have become a big concern in the B.C. Interior, prompting a two-day spruce beetle summit held recently in Prince George, to keep all the parties in the loop about this latest beetle battle.
COFI Conference Preview
The upcoming Council of Forest Industries (COFI) convention in April will be looking at the challenges now facing the industry, including how to get a new lumber deal with the U.S.—but these challenges are being tackled by an industry that’s resilient, creative and successful, says COFI President and CEO Susan Yurkovich.
Back on track… after The Beast
The growth plan at Fort McMurray’s Northland Forest Products is back on track, after being temporarily interrupted by the massive wildfire—called The Beast—that hit the city this past spring.
Milling for the movies
The Brooks sawmill, in the Rocky Mountain foothills of Alberta, has developed a varied client list—including supplying wood products to the recent hit movie, The Revenant.
Alberta logging contractor Corey Stoneman finds that when it comes to choosing equipment for the stump-side processing he does for Spray Lakes Sawmills in the eastern slopes of the Rockies, bigger is definitely better.
New work standards for sawmill planers
New work standards for sawmill planers in B.C. are expected to make the work environment safer—and contribute to an increase in planer efficiency.
Cutting its own path
Simpson Lumber Co. has cut its own path to success in B.C.’s Robson Valley, focusing on Doug fir timbers, specialty and custom cuts—with the bonus being a very short commute for mill owner, Larry Simpson.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre and Alberta Innovates.
The Last Word
Getting the B.C. forest industry to a bright future is going to take some doing, with a falling timber cut, says Jim Stirling.