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For One Small Sawmill, Too Many Lost Jobs

Across the country, small sawmills are clinging to survival. It is not because they are inefficient and cannot compete.

By Jim Stirling
Copyright 1996. Contact publisher for permission to use.

At Kalesnikoff Lumber Co., the word is out. Don't take out a mortgage or buy a new pick-up. For the 130 workers at the company's sawmill operation at Thrums, in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia, there will be yet another layoff to face, most likely before Christmas. The small family-owned mill and its employees have endured four layoffs in the last year. A persistent wood supply crunch has the operation in a tenuous situation with an uncertain future.

The Thrums syndrome is not unique. Across the country, small sawmills are clinging to survival. It is not because they are inefficient and cannot compete. It's because they cannot get the wood they require to be innovative, which is not the same as saying there is no wood to acquire.

In Kalesnikoff Lumber's case, there's a frustrating irony to the company's predicament. Enough quota wood to keep one shift running year round would be the security the mill requires to expand into secondary manufacture and value-added wood products. That estimated 60,000 m3 of wood could create 28 new jobs, more mortgages and pick-up trucks and more stability for a small forest industry community.

Stirling, Jim That should be persuasive fodder to provincial politicians, and Kalesnikoff's owners and employees have been hammering away at them to explain the urgency of the mill's situation. Most of the time, the elected representatives listen politely and even sympathize, especially around election time. But when a succession of provincial forest ministers tell Kalesnikoff Lumber they'll get back to it, the issue ranks right up there with 'the cheque's in the mail.' The company and other small operators in the region have been waiting to be got back to since June, 1995 when nearly 81,000 m3 of wood was left unallocated in the Kootenay Lake Timber Supply Area. How, when or of it's to be allocated was still on ice in September, 1996.

The dilemma has turned Kevin Nichol into a reluctant activist. He's written many letters, organized demonstrations, circulated petitions and got the ear of the media. "The environmental movement has relied on forest worker complacency for too long and I hope more of us will finally wake up and speak up for our jobs,'' urges Nichol.

He's a 30-year-old lumber grader who commutes about 80 kilometres daily from Trail to and from his job with Kalesnikoff Lumber. Nichols is a Kootenay-born family man with four children, car payments and he's experienced enough of layoffs. He's earned a double 'A' lumber grading ticket, has Class A industrial first aid and has learned to speak Japanese becuase he figured it would help him in his work. Nichol readily admits he loves his job and he's not about to lose it without a fight.

"I think it's time for people to realize we do not live in the Garden of Eden anymore,'' wrote Nichol in a letter to a local newspaper earlier this year. "There are five billion of us and, short of exterminating everyone who walks on the grass, we will have an impact on this earth. The trick is to do it sensibly and controlled."

It's not Nichol's idea of finding the middle ground between the varying sectors affected by forest management to preserve a forested area because a tree planter once reported the trees were singing hymns. But that is what's happening in the Kootenays. "I was out in our log yard at Kalesnikoff Lumber and the logs were singing a different tune. They were singing about jobs and stable communities," parodies Nichol.

Kalesnikoff Lumber has a timber quota but it provides only 28 per cent of the mill's requirements. It used to be that we could privately buy the additional fibre we needed, explains Nichol. No more. The region's larger companies are now gobbling it up, he says. And it irks him to see white pine that could be re-manufactured into value-added products ending up in a large company's chipper.

When Nichols talks to politicians or the public about his employer's and his own precarious future, he's not simply crying the blues and beseeching someone to perform a remedial magic act.

"I'm not a politician but you have to look at jobs in the communities. That means tenure reform and the jobs-to-fibre ratio." He claims small operators

Like Kalesnikoff employ twice the number of workers per cubic metre harvested as larger companies in the region. And he notes the public and the politicians say they want to see more value-added manufacturing and secondary manufacturing to produce more finished wood products from less wood fibre. Nichols says in Washington and Oregon, 3.5 jobs are created per cubic metre of fibre harvested. He believes the corresponding statistic in BC is 0.8 jobs per cubic metre.

"The whole tenure system needs to be looked at so we can create more work with more jobs here in Canada and send our finished wood products over the line into the United States," he states.

There should be more Kevin Nichols at the forest industry's grass-roots level with the gumption and courage to speak out for what they believe in. Perhaps then the word getting out would not be so much about curtailment and closure but opportunity and optimism.

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