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Burns Lake business base
The Burns Lake Community Forest has developed a successful business base and used that foundation as a catalyst for creative diversification that has kept economic and employment benefits pumping through the community.

By Jim Stirling  

Michael Riis-Christianson (left), Bill Chapman and Bill Huxham of Burns Lake Community Forest Ltd: working to keep the benefits of the community forest in Burns Lake despite the challenges facing the forest industry.  

The Burns Lake Community Forest has developed a successful business base and has used that foundation as a catalyst for creative diversification.                                   

The community forest has proven to be a boon for regional logging contractors, truckers and the service and supply sectors in the west central region of British Columbia. It’s kept economic and employment benefits pumping through the community despite the array of challenges facing the Interior forest industry. The community forest is the flagship operation run by Comfor Management Services Ltd (Comfor). Other subsidiary Comfor operations include Endako River Timber Ltd, a small specialty sawmilling enterprise, and it owns and manages its own Whistle Lake woodlot. Comfor also operates Lakes Communications Inc, which provides high-speed internet service.                                   

If that seems a departure from Comfor’s core business, it’s because it is. At least, it is on one level. On another, it’s a solid fit with Comfor’s mandate. Extending the advantages of an internet service to include local areas where it didn’t exist before was in response to a clearly identified community need, says Comfor. Identifying and filling community needs is one of Comfor’s major goals. Next on the horizon is partnership in an initiative with potentially far-reaching implications: building an energy system based on a pool of regionally available wood biomass.                 

Burns Lake has blazed the trail for community forest development in the BC Interior. The Village of Burns Lake and its principal partners, the office of the Wet’suweten’en hereditary chiefs and the Burns Lake Band, began actively working together for a community forest in 1997. Interestingly, Burns Lake has an historic connection with the community forest concept going back to 1974. A change in provincial government and philosophy scuttled attempts to form one at the time. The Burns Lake partners worked hard on the community forest proposal and development plan. The community had to be extensively consulted to make sure the proposals for the forest land base were on the right track. And it had to meet the procedural requirements of the provincial government.                                   

A workerfrom Wet’suwet’en First Nation collects cones from the community forest.

It all came together in July 2000, with the official go-ahead for the community forest to commence log harvesting operations. The AAC had been set at 23,677 cubic metres a year for five years within a 20,000 hectare area in the Lakes District Timber Supply Area.                                   

But things change. Timing in business, as in life, is everything. The mountain pine beetle epidemic in the region exploded out of control. The community forest was in a position to respond to huge uplifts in the annual cuts approved by the provincial government in an attempt to salvage timber volumes killed by the beetle while it retained value for manufacture into lumber. As a result, the community forest licence became a 25-year renewable tenure in 2004. Amendments sanctioned by the provincial government boosted the cut to 83,000 cubic metres annually across an 80,000 hectare area. The idea was to harvest as much of the devastated pine forests as possible with a view to getting the land base back in production expeditiously.                                   

But, says Bill Huxham, Comfor’s general manager, the government through the Ministry of Forests and Range continued to step up the pace of its salvage operations. When Comfor on behalf of the Burns Lake Community Forest applied individually for each new timber sale, the government approved them. Now, says Huxham, they’re looking at 360,000 cubic metres a year for the next five years. It’s totally beetle related and those cut levels won’t be sustained over the long term, he says. The government, through the Ministry of Forests, has legislated a stumpage rate specific to community forest licence holders. It’s based upon a percentage of the stumpage rates established through the regional BC Timber Sales Program. What that comes down to, confirms Huxham, is a community forest stumpage rate that is lower than that of other operators in the area.

Volunteers assist with mountain bike trail construction. Burns Lake’s mountain bike trail system, one of the best in northern British Columbia, was developed in part with assistance from the Burns Lake Community Forest.

Huxham notes, however, that a community forest licence holder has other expectations placed upon it by its constituents. For example, outlines Huxham, it might be the provision of facilities for skiing, quad vehicle and/or hiking trails in the community forest area.                                   

By any yardstick, the Burns Lake Community Forest has accomplished much since its inception. Statistics tell part of the story. It has created 547,000 man-hours of employment. It has spent $37 million on goods and services and distributed $3.1 million to community groups.                 

The proposal to utilize wood biomass in diverse forms to fire an energy system in the Burns Lake area continues to gather momentum.                                   

Hampton Affiliates—the new owners of Babine Forest Products and Decker Lake Forest Products, the Burns Lake Native Development Corporation, Cheslatta Forest Products and Comfor armed themselves with a report from a consulting engineer providing background and feasibility options. (Cheslatta Forest Products has since announced a partnership with Pristine Power to build a $40 million wood-fired power plant adjacent to its mill on Ootsa Lake, about 80 kilometres south of Burns Lake.)

The Burns Lake Community Forest has sponsored log-building courses in co-operation with the College of New Caledonia’s Lakes District campus.

“Essentially we asked pellet manufacturing groups and co-generation people what could we do with our biomass that would benefit our partners and the village,” explains Huxham. “There is no pulp mill in our immediate area.” Listening and talking with them will dictate how the process unfolds, he adds. He believes the mills will set the pace for progress on an energy system. “But we would like to see some pouring of concrete in 2008.”                                   

Comfor is also anticipating the reopening of Endako River Timber, one of its subsidiary operations, in the spring of 2008. “We’re looking at an emphasis on dowel manufacture,” says Huxham.” We have an unlimited supply of small fibre, four and five inches in the butt that is material the mills don’t want.”                 

Huxham also sees a recovery in the wood matting (used to support heavy equipment in the oil patch) and rail tie markets. Strengthening in those areas would expand Endako River’s product lines and bode well for the operation’s future.  

Burns Lake a model for land use
The Burns Lake Community Forest has become a model for other regional communities looking to have a say on land use in their own back yards. There is no magic formula, of course. Each community has to be responsive to its own constituents, wood supply and circumstances. But the experience of Burns Lake is valuable because it’s well established and it has demonstrated an innovative growth pattern.                       

Certainly the Wetzin’kwa Community Forest Corporation (WCFC) has tapped into Burns Lake’s expertise as it proceeds toward start-up operation. The WCFC is a partnership between the Town of Smithers, Village of Telkwa and the Office of the Wet’suwet’en. It has a management plan approved by the Ministry of Forests and Range to harvest up to 30,000 cubic metres a year in an area of 31,000 hectares. Much of the land is in behind Hudson Bay Mountain, Smithers’ signature backdrop.                       

Late in 2007, the WCFC was busy holding open houses to seek community input into its proposed Forest Stewardship Plan, address concerns and craft solutions into the overall strategy.                       

The plan will be designed so the land area used by the regional community is managed by it and the decisions made are to its benefit, summarizes Bill Golding, WCFC general manager. The Smithers- Telkwa area supports a wide range of avid recreational users and a flourishing research community based on land use and natural resources. The area contains significant aboriginal concerns. The name Wetzin’kwa refers to the junction of the Morice and Bulkley rivers and means, approximately, “clean green water flowing.” What happens on the community forest land base will be under the public’s microscope.                       

From a forest standpoint, the WCFC’s part of the Bulkley Timber Supply Area represents a transitional zone between the sub-boreal spruce and balsam forests with interior cedar/hemlock, explains Golding, who works for Silvicon Services in Smithers, a forestry consulting firm. Pine accounts for about 18 per cent of the forest. But forest development units within the community forest where pine occurs are at increasing risk from the mountain pine beetle epidemic as the insects march relentlessly from the east.                       

“We’re trying to do what we can to address community issues and get the Forest Stewardship Plan approved as quickly as possible so we can address the emerging beetle problem,” says Golding. West Fraser Mills Ltd’s Pacific Inland Resources sawmill in Smithers has agreed to take the community forest’s beetle attack pine, he adds. If all proceeds smoothly, harvesting will begin in 2008.