By Jim Stirling
The sounds of industrial scale logging are echoing through the aspen and spruce forests surrounding Fort Nelson for the first time in more than 13 years. The return to town of a traditional industry and a much-needed employer for the far northeastern corner of British Columbia is generally welcomed.
But there are concerns the investments behind the renewed harvesting represents another hit-and-run for the region, rather than the catalyst for redefining and diversifying a healthy green forest resource and managing it for long term regional prosperity.
It was in 2008 when forest company Canfor pulled up stakes, mothballed its holdings including older plywood and OSB plants which jointly supported about 600 jobs, and left Fort Nelson to its own economic devices.
But Canfor was permitted by intervening provincial governments to hold on to—without using—its enabling forest licences, the real value in its investment in town. That status quo remained until late in 2020, when Canfor transferred its forest licence to Peak Renewables.
Canfor followed that in 2021 by selling its Fort Nelson assets to the same privately-owned company. Peak Renewables announced its vision for Fort Nelson was to build an industrial wood pellet manufacturing plant. The production target of 600,000 tonnes annually for export to Asia would make it Canada’s largest wood pellet manufacturing plant.
The logging activity so far has been to stockpile the aspen furnish for the pellet plant and harvest the spruce sawlogs for sale. They are trucked south down the Alaska Highway to existing commodity lumber sawmills between Fort St. John and Prince George, a region where Canfor is a major player. The spruce logs have a ready market given the domestic log shortages and a surging U.S. lumber market.
During the last few years, the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality (NRRM) based in Fort Nelson has spearheaded its Forestry Rejuvenation Project. Its goal was to open the eyes of potential international investors to the region’s forest industry development potential, including its immense wood basket and available infrastructure. The NRRM went methodically about its business.
For example, in 2017 the first of two studies was launched to study the characteristics of the region’s neglected aspen resource. The FPInnovations investigation showed the quality and size of regional aspen was higher than that revealed in comparable western Canada aspen studies.
“Log quality analyses show that 97.5 per cent of the volume of trees harvested was sound wood,” reported FPInnovations.
The NRRM’s second aspen study initiated commercial trials of regional aspen for the manufacture of various wood products. The results were promising. It showed NRRM aspen represented a solid market opportunity, especially in veneer-based industries like plywood and laminated veneer lumber.
“The challenge ahead,” the study predicted “will be to match the technical opportunities with the right business partners to develop long term sustainable business and economic activity in the northern Rockies regional area surrounding Fort Nelson.”
Aspen and other hardwoods frequently get a bad rap in the B.C. Interior. But it wasn’t too long ago when the lodgepole pine was similarly scorned by many in the B.C. forest industry. They just couldn’t see the small diameter wood species as a viable raw material for manufacturing quality commodity lumber products.
In the past, the B.C. Interior was spoiled by an abundance of accessible SPF forests. But large tracts of timber have been steadily annexed from the forest industry for a wide variety of other purposes. Then came years of the mountain pine beetle epidemic and B.C.’s worst forest fire seasons in 2017 and 2018.
Forests in the Fort Nelson area have been fortunate. Being comprised primarily of aspen and spruce, they escaped the worst ravages of the pine beetle and were spared from wildfires. They also weren’t being logged after Canfor left, creating additional volumes of timber each year. A provincial timber review increased the Annual Allowable Cut (AAC) in the Fort Nelson Timber Supply Area to 2.6 million cubic metres/year, a massive increase of a million cubic metres from the 2006 review.
A question being posed about the new pellet plant is that with a limited supply of old logging residues to draw from, does high quality green aspen represent the best use of fibre in terms of jobs created and financial returns to B.C.?
There are additional factors entering the equation. Fort Nelson is now home to B.C.’s largest community forest. It’s owned by the Fort Nelson First Nation and the NRRM. It covers around 200,000 hectares with an AAC of up to 217,650 cubic metres. The community forest gives the Fort Nelson Indian Band an influential say in land management on some of its traditional territories, something it hasn’t had before. The band also now has an equity stake in Peak Renewables’ new pellet plant. Community forest wood represents lower cost fibre for Peak because of its relative proximity to the pellet plant.
The provincial government could have a say in how the Fort Nelson situation matures. “There is too little fibre and we need to do something about that,” Premier John Horgan told delegates during his keynote address to the B.C. Council of Forest Industries (COFI) virtual annual conference in April. Horgan said doing something could involve the redistribution of existing forest tenure in the province. In early June, the B.C. government announced major proposed changes to forest policy—that would include a compensatory framework—to redistribute forest tenures to First Nations, forest communities and small operators.
While the government mulls its options and some aspen stands await conversion to wood pellets for export, the spruce leaves town for processing in southern sawmills.
On the Cover:
New Brunswick logger Marco Caron knows that business success in harvest contracting depends on basics: a well-motivated team, keen business skills and good equipment. In that last area, Caron’s harvesting equipment includes two Ponsse Scorpions. In fact, Caron was so impressed with his 2017 Scorpion harvester that he added a second 2018 Scorpion model to his operation. (Cover photo by George Fullerton).
Big things are happening at GreenFirst Forest Products—the company has bought six sawmills in Ontario and Quebec from Rayonier. We get the scoop on what’s going on at the company, with an interview with its new CEO—and lumber industry veteran—Rick Doman.
New sawmill investments by Resolute Forest Products
A look at recent sawmill investments by Resolute Forest Products, as it works hard to generate more production in super-hot lumber markets.
Innovative logger meets innovative iron
VanNatta Brothers Logging is seeing solid success with the first Quadco 4400 (QB4400) feller head in North America, which is now manufactured in B.C.
New Hampshire mill gets new Canadian technology
The upgrade of the Milan Lumber sawmill involved a fair bit of Canadian mill equipment, including i-DNA species identification technology from Autolog.
Delivering gains at Downie Timber
Downie Timber of Revelstoke, B.C., is investing to upgrade its edger line with USNR’s BioVision technology, to deliver the utmost in recovery, with New West Mill Installations as the contractor assigned to deliver the finished product during challenging COVID times.
Successful logging formula
New Brunswick logger Marco Caron’s formula for business success includes family involvement, solid equipment operators, and logging iron that delivers day-in, day-out in the bush.
Tech Update: Dry Kiln Suppliers
We take a look at the new features and technology among Dry Kiln Suppliers in this issue.
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 (CWFC) and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
In spite of the COVID-19 virus, the forest industry is buckling down and—as it always has—is getting the job done, says Jim Stirling.