Houston, B.C. waiting for Canfor sawmill decision, and planning for beyond that decision

By Jim Stirling

By the end of June this year, the district of forestry-dependent Houston should officially know the extent and depth of the economic crisis it faces. By that deadline, Canfor Corp has pledged to make public its determination on the future of its once mighty sawmilling complex at Houston, in west central British Columbia. Some forest industry experts claimed the Houston sawmill was at one stage the largest in the world, in terms of lumber throughput.

The best news scenario from the community’s perspective is if Canfor opts to rebuild its sawmill in town. Canfor’s shareholders must first be satisfied a return on investment in a new mill is justified. Any new mill design must be closely aligned to a radically changed fibre base in the Houston region. Any replacement operation will surely be on a more modest scale, and require fewer mill workers and those in bush operations.

The worst case scenario for Houston is Canfor walks away, and pursues its corporate ambitions elsewhere. The implications from a permanent mill closure in Houston will ricochet through the local and regional economies.

Houston’s Canfor future has been in the balance for months. But it wasn’t confirmed until January 2023 when Canfor announced the permanent closure of its sawmill and adjacent wood pellet manufacturing plant in Chetwynd, in northeast B.C. Houston operations were next on the list.

“The impact on our community will be significant, and it will create some incredibly challenging circumstances for many local and regional residents,” anticipates the Houston mayor and council in an open letter expressing displeasure with Canfor’s decision.

By April 2023, Mayor Shane Brienen and his six councillors had announced an unusual response for a municipality to take. It planned on launching a campaign of support and action from similarly afflicted forest industry dependent communities around the province.

“Houston believes in standing up for our residents, our businesses and an industry that has provided so much to so many,” declared the council. “That’s why we believe the time is now for forestry communities throughout B.C. to join together, work collaboratively on solutions and ideas, strengthen our community goals and deliver these important messages to the governments of B.C. and Canada.”

Bonding with other communities facing similar predicaments can do little harm. A collective voice might prove more persuasive in extracting some levels of remedial assistance to forestry-dependent communities in the short term. Trying to shift the focus of an entire regional economy, however, is a very different matter.

Houston is in a potentially helpful position though if it sticks more closely to doing what its residents understand and are good at. And that’s the woods industry. Houston has a long logging and sawmilling history. It also has a community forest.

The Dungate Community Forest lies east of the town of Houston. It is no replacement for a sophisticated primary forest industry provider like Canfor, but it could provide a catalyst for hope. The community forest, jointly owned by the District of Houston and Canfor, has an Annual Allowable Cut of 29,000 cubic metres. For some time, the district has been looking to expand the size of its community forest from its present 14,212 hectares. The district says the percentage of cut in the Morice Timber Supply Area (TSA) allocated to the community forest is below that of neighbouring TSA’s in the region.

The community forest proponents are suggesting an area to the west of Houston and adjacent to the Morice Mountain Recreation Area be added to the community forest. The addition would also allow an enhancement to Houston’s wildfire protection system. A larger community forest would enhance the advantages Houston already possesses. For example, it is home to a core of experienced log harvesters, truckers and their pools of equipment.

Dedicating a section of the community forest as a locally managed zone for more intense forest management practices could help keep some skilled forest workers and their families in the community. Houston is already home to experienced secondary wood product manufacturers. Companies like Pleasant Valley Remanufacturing have the equipment and knowledge to produce and market a range of non-commodity lumber wood products.

Most B.C. community forests are managed for a range of community benefits, with fibre production and harvesting down the list. But times have changed.  There are more communities like Houston. Creating an area within the forest for log harvesting activity using small scale techniques remains within the spirit of community forests. It’s the type of forestry that employs more people per cubic metre of timber harvested.

There are likely to be many forks in the road but forestry dependent communities like Houston will ultimately have to rely on their own resources to sustain themselves and succeed.

Logging and Sawmilling Journal

May/June 2023

On the Cover:
Despite the current industry downturn—following the lumber market going on a tear through the pandemic—the B.C.-based San Group is continuing on a strategy that involves acquisitions and equipment upgrades. The purchase of the Acorn sawmill is part of that strategy, and the company now plans a number of upgrades at the facility. In a year when the B.C. forest industry has been marked by permanent sawmill closures, Kamal Sanghera, the San Group’s CEO, notes that the company is working hard to make investments—and create jobs—in the province. Read all about the developments at the San Group beginning on page 12 of this issue. (Cover photo courtesy of the San Group).

Have mill/will travel …
Wood-Mizer’s LT40 portable sawmill is a solid fit for the Have Sawmill, Will Travel, custom sawmilling/customer-focused approach of B.C.’s Strait Timber.

Switching gears in Alberta … to forestry
Alberta contractor Backwoods Forestry Solutions is switching gears, going from logging solely for the oil patch to logging for the forest industry.

San Group keeping busy with acquisition, upgrades
B.C. forest company the San Group has been busy lately, with the company working on completing a new small log line, and purchasing the Acorn sawmill, with plans for upgrades.

Shortage of logging truck drivers moving along autonomous trucks
A severe shortage of logging truck drivers is among the drivers for an initiative to customize autonomous truck driving technology on Canadian resource roads by 2026.

Landrich 2.0 gets two thumbs up
The equipment operators at L.E. Spencer—including 78-year-old Lloyd Spencer—are finding the outfit’s new Landrich 2.0 harvester to be a very good fit for their New Brunswick logging.

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
The B.C. Interior town of Houston is waiting for a Canfor sawmill decision to come this summer, but also planning for beyond that decision, notes Jim Stirling.


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