B.C. Interior forest industry is tackling adversity—and planning for the future

By Jim Stirling

Fortunately, there are two sides to every coin.

If the British Columbia Interior’s forest industry issued a coin, its tail side would reflect the gloomy present. It’s one characterized by permanent sawmill closures and production curtailments that have dumped several forest industry-dependent Interior communities and their residents into financial crisis.

The combination of circumstances that trigger the contraction have not changed. It means more misery is on the way, according to observers like FEA Canada, a consulting firm targeting the international solid wood products manufacturing industry. FEA predicts the equivalent of a dozen further sawmill closures in the region during the next decade.

The changes in wood fibre supply and increased costs could also translate into operational changes among plywood plants, wood pellet manufacturing facilities, co-gen plants and even pulp mills, says FEA Canada. The company’s computer modelling indicates that as a result, the B.C. Interior forest industry might become a smaller regional force in future global forest product markets. That’s one version of what could happen if nothing changes, and the fate is accepted.

But the people in the B.C. Interior forest industry have for more than 100 years faced adversity by demonstrating a combination of resiliency, fortitude and innovation. It’s the results of those qualities that dominate the heads side of the B.C. Interior’s forest industry coin.

The industry’s future is not all about change. The region will continue manufacturing dimension commodity lumber. Not in the same quantities as in the past, but with the same quality for which the region’s people and plants have established the world’s standards. The menu of other wood products manufactured in the region, however, is likely to become more diverse and less conventional.

A glimpse of what that future might look like is already on display in Quesnel. The city in the Central Interior of the province officially opened its Forest Innovation Centre in 2019. It houses displays and information about local wood’s plethora of potential, and provides flexible working spaces and meeting rooms.

Quesnel has emerged as something of a poster child for embracing a positive and collaborative attitude toward its changed forest landscape. Decades of focused industrial activity more recently imprinted with the effects of warming climate-inspired insect infestations and wildfires of mega proportions have left a cascade of consequences. Add in trade wars and escalating operating costs and that is why the regional industry is reeling.

Led by Mayor Bob Simpson and city council, Quesnel has for a couple of years been actively involved in seeking ways to redefine its regional forest industry. The creation of the Forest Innovation Centre is just one initiative Quesnel has taken as it looks toward its future. The centre is the visual part of a broader Forestry Initiative Program created to address the industry’s challenges, and tailor them toward a sustainable forestry future for Quesnel.

The wildfire seasons of 2017 and 2018 dramatically reinforced the notion that becoming more fire smart is everyone’s business. Quesnel urges its businesses and homeowners to identify potential wild fire hazards and take proactive steps to mitigate their effects. Quesnel has also developed a community wildfire protection plan. It includes a large-scale fuel management program in co-operation with its partners. The plan starts with areas within two kilometres of the urban interface and works outwards..

Partnerships are also key to Quesnel’s approach to landscape level analysis and restoration. The city explains: “We are proposing a learning laboratory on the land west of the Fraser River to test alternate forms of ecosystem management. The proposed project consists of research, management and planning to better understand the role of fire and forest health on ecosystem function.”

A whole suite of techniques are involved, including the use of prescribed fires, forest management like thinning and spacing and utilizing more fibre including the volumes left after the conventional harvesting of insect and fire damaged timber.

Quesnel is fortunate that it has a core of wood manufacturing facilities, which can springboard product diversification. The city is working with partners like FPInnovations to identify some of the new product possibilities. They include prefabricated construction materials; wood composites; bio-fuels; bio-oils; wood pellets and biodegradable single use products.

Others are not exactly household names. Yet. Take nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), for example. The product is extracted from woody biomass in solid, liquid or gel forms. Its features include high strength, electromagnetic response and the adaptive ability to add stiffness and gloss to host materials like paper. Depending on the results of pilot production experience, NCC proponents envisage other applications ranging from the aerospace and automotive industries to health products and food sectors, according to Natural Resources Canada.  

Lignin is viewed as a renewable, green alternative to fossil fuel-based compounds used in adhesives, thermoplastics and a range of other potential applications. West Fraser Timber has been extracting its trademarked Amallin Lignin during its pulp manufacturing operations. ”Growth is core to our business and the world’s appetite for wood products continues to increase. We are always looking for opportunities where we can step forward and expand into new markets,” summarized Chris McIver, vice-president, sales and marketing with West Fraser, which has its headquarters and corporate roots in Quesnel.

Potential new wood products sound exotic and far removed from the world of 2x4s. But whatever the end product, the wood growing in the forest must still be harvested, transported and processed—and that means sustainable jobs in communities like Quesnel.

Logging and Sawmilling Journal

On the Cover:
Building components manufacturer Katerra recently opened North America’s highest volume cross-laminated timber (CLT) factory in Spokane Valley, Washington, and Logging and Sawmilling Journal has all the details on the new production facility beginning on page 28. The new plant has an annual manufacturing capacity of 185,000 cubic metres, the equivalent of 13 million square feet of 5-ply panels (Cover photo courtesy of Katerra Inc.).

Advocating safety—in all parts of logging
The BC Forest Safety Council is a leader in forest safety, and its employees such as Mike Pottinger are great advocates for industry safety, from the bush to the repair shop.

COFI Conference coming up in April
Logging and Sawmilling Journal outlines the issues and previews the B.C. Council of Forest Industries’ (COFI) annual convention coming up in April in Prince George, B.C., the largest gathering of the forest sector in Western Canada.

Giving ‘er in B.C. logging…
Young logging contractors may be in short supply these days, but the ones that are out there, like B.C.’s Brandon Connolly, are extremely effective with their equipment, and are—as Connolly says—“giving ‘er”.

More chips, please!
B.C.’s Valiant Log Sort has seen big-time growth in its wood chipping operations, with the closure/curtailment of a number of sawmills, and it has added to its equipment line-up with a new CBI 7544 Flail Debarker and Disc Chipper.

Manufacturing CLT state-side—with Canadian lumber
Building components manufacturer Katerra has opened a $150 million, high-volume cross-laminated timber (CLT) factory in Washington State—and feedstock, in the form of dimensional lumber, is all coming from Canada.

Breaking down wood—without breaking the bank
B.C. custom sawmiller Bob Jerke has discovered how to break down timbers into high volumes of boards without breaking the bank, thanks to a lower cost, manually-operated band sawmill.

Tech Update
Logging and Sawmilling Journal takes flight with this Tech Update, with a focus on drones in the forest industry.

The Edge
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from Alberta Innovates and Canadian Wood Fibre Centre (CWFC).

The Last Word
The present may look gloomy for the B.C. Interior forest industry, but it is tackling adversity and planning for the future, explains columnist Jim Stirling.

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