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Alberni Valley A Forestry Hub Feels The Impact Of Cutbacks

Small, value-added plants are surfacing in the Alberni Valley, but with hundreds of forestry jobs lost, there is a long way to go.

By Reg Barclay
Copyright 1996. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Once a key centre for forestry activity on Vancouver Island, harvest cutbacks, changing markets, plant shutdowns and declining employment have created an atmosphere of gloom in the Port Alberni area.

MacMillan Bloedel has been, and still is, the major employer in the Alberni Valley for over 50 years. But circumstances have changed. The harvest in the Clayoquot Sound, for example, has been decreased from 900,000 m3 to 300,000 m3, and is still an integral part of the timber resource base for the community. A report by the Sterling Wood Group of Consultants for the Clayoquot Sound Sustainable Development Strategy Committee noted that each 1000 m3 of timber cut provides 0.5 man-years of employment directly and 1.0 man-years indirectly.

Alberni The company's Alberni plywood plant closed in 1991, with a loss of 374 jobs. The Somass and Alberni Pacific sawmills were modernized and converted to more of a value-added production, which resulted in the loss of another 163 jobs. The Alberni kraft pulp mill was closed with a loss of 349 jobs, since market conditions could not support the capital required to modernize and bring operations to the high environmental standards now required. In addition, 950 logging jobs have been eliminated since 1980, with more mechanization in logging and a lower timber volume availability. MBL's harvest has reduced from 3.2 million m3 to 2.0 million m3 in the past 15 years - down 47 per cent.

A slight offset to this litany of job loss was the establishment of light-weight coated paper production, at a cost of $205 million, with 30 new jobs.

MB spokeman Scott Alexander advises that about 1,700 forestry jobs have been eliminated in the Alberni Valley since 1980. Unemployment now stands at 14.4 per cent, compared to the BC average of 10 per cent. Alexander feels that unemployment could swell to 20 per cent with the end of support in the valley by Forest Renewal BC (FRBC), and when the full impact of the new Forest Practices Code is realized on the annual allowable cut.

When the plywood plant closed, the alarm expressed by the community led the government to create the Port Alberni Forest Sector Committee to explore alternative employment options within the Region. The result was the incorporation of the Alberni Strategic Forest Alliance Corporation, a non-profit community-based group; it is led by Joe Stanhope, who recently retired as government agent for the region.

Stanhope says the mission of the community corporation is to assist the local value-added sector by stabilizing supply, encouraging cooperation between operators, and providing marketing and financial assistance. At this writing, the corporation was awaiting approval for a 'community timber license' covering a 45,000 m3 annual cut. It will use the wood to augment the supply of timber to the 19 small primary and secondary manufacturing plants in the region, currently providing 257 jobs and consuming about 340,000 m3 of fibre per year.

How far can the value-added sector go in replacing the enormous number of jobs lost in this area? For firms like Sarita Furniture, operated by the husband and wife team of Keith and Bernadette Wyton, that will be answered in the marketplace.

The Wytons, who started making furniture as a hobby in their Bamfield home, decided to go commercial in 1990 and now employ between 12 and 20 people, depending on the season. A well-equipped factory produces a high-quality product ready for assembly.

Alberni Sarita purchases 300,000 to 500,000 board feet of western red cedar annually on the open market. They buy shorts up to 6' in length in grades of factory shop and 'D' clear, which they have kiln dried. It is difficult to believe that blemish-free furniture with beautiful soft grain can be made from this low-grade material.

Initially targetting the Vancouver Island market, the business has expanded and now exports overseas. About 65 per cent is exported to Europe, chiefly Germany, and 25 per cent is sold in the US and Canadian west coast markets.

As with many Mom and Pop operations, a lack of working capital is a constant problem. The cost of cedar went up a few years ago and has not come down. In Europe, competition is fierce; Asian firms competing for business there have lower wood and labour costs. "That's where the real battlefield is, in the marketplace," says Keith.

Recently, the Wytons' bank asked them to increase payments on their loan, making their capital position even more difficult. Despite the assistance of the Federal Western Diversification Group, the Wytons have put the plant up for sale.

Around the corner from Sarita is another value-added plant, the Rebco custom-cutting and specialty plant. This very tidy operation is the culmination of a dream by two former MBL employees, Burt Erickson and Rob Como, who in 1989 literally built the plant themselves, erecting buildings, installing a chipper storage bin, a precision cutting line and a planer. They have three dryers; two are the heat and vent type for fast drying, and the other is a dehumidifier type, for slower, more careful drying. Much of the equipment is their own design.

Their basic product is servicing other companies, custom cutting special sizes and custom drying and planing. Their work is high quality and they can profile, for example, German window stock which is a very high standard. They also do special sizes for Japan, and produce products for their own account such as hemlock spindle blanks. Their operation is flexible and diverse, and can handle three cutting operations at the same time. Throughput volume capacity is 600,000 to 800,000 board measure per month.

Some of the capital needed to build the plant was developed from a small-business, value-added timber license, under section 16(1) of the Forest Act, for 130,000 m3, which will finish this year. Looking ahead, they have applied for another value-added timber license and, in partnership with the Ditidaht First Nation, will build a small sawmill on the Ditidaht reservation.

Moving over the Nagaard Sawmills Ltd., a visitor is first struck by the exceptionally low-grade raw material this plant is processing. It has to be seen to be believed. Truly, this is a value-added operation. The mill cuts what looks like salvage cedar log material, which they say is pulp and utility grade. Typical of the overmature red cedar on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the tree, when felled, breaks into many pieces and fragments and isn't suitable by any stretch for a high volume, commodity mill. This is Nagaard's specialty.

The plant, operated by Dale and Darrol Nagel, was started by their father and uncle back in about 1966. This is no state-of-the-art modern mill, but it produces good-looking products. Cedar siding is their main item produced in several different patterns to a basic thickness of 23/32'' in three lengths: 4', 6' and 8'. It can be supplied either natural, primed or with a finished paint coat. They sell directly to contractors on Vancouver Island and to the mainland. Contractors order from the mill and delivery is direct to the site. Contractors get their siding how and when they want it.

However, Dale Nagel agreed that with selling direct to contractors, timely payment and even payment at all is sometimes a credit problem. The mill also produces fence panels in a criss-cross pattern, as well as decking, and construction grades of lumber; they also do custom planing. All told, the mill uses 35,000 m3 of raw material per year; it operates one shift and has a staff of 30 to 40 people.

Very defintely, this is a hands-on operation. Dale Nagel greets this visitor in overalls, with a cutting torch in one hand and a piece of steel in the other. "We do most of the work in the mill ourselves. Last year we purchased a second-hand Albany twin band edger, with computer controls for our primary breakdown unit, which we installed ourselves. We did not really know what we were doing, but we got it working, and it is doing a good job.''

One can't help but admire the hard work and entrepreneurial spirit of businesses like these. Nevertheless, it seems clear that to come even close to replacing forestry jobs lost in this area over the past several years, the value-added sector has a long way to go.

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