Forest Fires, Timber Access Among Top Topics to be Discussed at COFI

by | Feb 16, 2024 | 2024, Industry News, January/February, Logging & Sawmilling Journal

Something familiar—and reliable—provides a sense of normalcy and reassurance when our planet and many of its inhabitants are in turmoil.

The British Columbia Council of Forest Industries (COFI) annual convention invites just such a response.

The 2024 edition of the COFI convention occupies its normal springtime slot. It’s scheduled for Vancouver’s J.W. Marriott Parq Hotel April 10-12.

The convention is primarily a business event, easily the largest of its kind for the forest industry in western Canada. The nature and scope of the industry today is reflected in the range of its participants. The forest industry communities at home and abroad are extensively represented through the participation of CEOs and other company executives. All levels of government are involved in the event including representatives from the federal, provincial and First Nations governments. They are the ones who collaborate to frame the policies directing the forest industry’s activities.

Those activities continue to promote the health of communities across the province and the representatives from all those government levels are eager participants in the COFI convention. Because the forest industry underpins the economic and social fabric of B.C., the convention attracts delegates from academia and research organizations along with a host of services from banking to transportation.

The range and scope of the forest industry’s supply and services network is further reflected at the convention’s affiliated and always well-attended trade show. It’s become a hugely popular part of the convention experience. Apart from bringing qualified buyers and sellers together to talk the same language to each other, the trade show illustrates another important function of the COFI convention. It’s a social event: an annual highlight for the forest industry.

The convention’s speaker roster is always top notch and a who’s who of experts in their fields. They include government ministers and successful entrepreneurs drawn from the industry’s broad constellation of suppliers.

The theme around which the 2024 COFI convention is framed is: Branching Out: B.C. Forestry for a Changing World. It represents a typically positive and forward looking message. It resonates well in challenging times for the forest industry and the province.

“Our delegates will hear speakers on where British Columbia and our forest sector fit into a world that is facing changes from geopolitical tensions, innovation, connectivity and a continued focus on meeting global carbon reduction targets,” Linda Coady outlined to Logging and Sawmilling Journal. Coady is COFI’s president and CEO. “We will be discussing how the B.C. forest sector is branching out in new ways through mass timber, the bioeconomy and other value added ventures.” The background to these conversations is a context of change and complexity.

“We continue to face challenges—not only globally—but here at home, with increasing wildfire activity every year, a slowdown in available fibre for the primary manufacturing sector and the impact that has on the whole value chain as well as the communities in which we operate,” added Coady. “We will also be discussing with politicians and government leaders who help shape the policy environment in which we operate as well as conversations about partnerships and the important role of indigenous communities in shaping the forest sector in British Columbia.”

The increase in the numbers and severity of wildfires in B.C. Coady referred to is now part of the consciousness of people living in the interior of the province. Residents have experienced wildfires first hand or can see their effects on regional landscapes and understand the prevailing drought conditions. The 2023 wildfire season was the most destructive in B.C.’s recorded history. Figures provided by the BC Wildfire Service, a government agency, show that between April 1 and October 31 more than 2.84 million hectares of forests and lands were burned by 2,245 wildfires at an estimated suppression cost of $817 million. The bald statistics are frightening enough, but they don’t reveal the whole story: the variety of longer term costs don’t show up in statistical columns.

“With the severity of the impact of wildfires growing not only in B.C. but across Canada and the United States, increasing understanding of the issues and how we can address them is critical,” noted Coady.

“For example, we know that for decades forest fire suppression has disturbed the natural forest.” But there are remedies. “We see a growing understanding of how sustainable forest management tools—forest practices such as thinning of dense forests, fuel treatments and cultural, controlled and prescribed burning—are essential to address the growth in frequency and severity of wildfires, keep communities safe and help mitigate increasing greenhouse gas emissions from out-of-control wildfires. We also see a growth in commitment across the province to put the resources into these measures,” she continued.

Coady assessed the health of B.C.’s primary forest industry going into 2024. “There is no doubt we are facing challenges and a time of transition and I would say this transition is harder than most.” She pointed out forest industry analysts reckoned 111 sawmills and 17 veneer plants were operating in the province in 2005, feeding fibre to 16 pulp mills and eight paper mills. By 2023, there were just 64 sawmills still operating.

“And like the heart to a body, sawmills are the primary organ of the forest industry. Without them, there is less residual fibre for pulp and paper mills and the value-added sector.”

As in any discussion about the forest industry there are many influencing factors to consider. “British Columbia has become a high cost operating jurisdiction for some time, which impacts forestry operations all across the province. An uneconomic and unreliable supply of fibre not only affects sawmills but all those in the integrated forest bioeconomy who rely on primary manufacturing to make higher value wood products.”

The web of interdependency extends further. “It also affects the people who use B.C. forest products, including the builders in Vancouver and Victoria which count on the B.C. forest industry to provide low-carbon, solid wood products for the thousands of affordable homes our province needs to solve the housing crisis.”

Coady suggested a new and smarter path forward is needed in B.C. “This path forward includes sustainably managed forests that support B.C.’s biodiversity and ecosystem health, an industry that manufactures low carbon products that help meet our provincial and global emission targets and all the while providing good jobs, advancing reconciliation with First Nations and playing a part in the fight against climate change.”

Access to a reliable and economic timber supply remains a challenge although the B.C. forest industry is not operating anywhere near its allowable levels. “Even allowing for the current market downturn as well as the impact of the pine beetle, fires and old growth deferrals, we are still harvesting well below a sustainable and allowable basis,” explained Coady.

“So today, our priority is to work together with the provincial government, First Nations, local communities and labour to address the current fibre supply shortage. To do so we need to improve the efficiency of current regulatory approval processes, including through BC Timber Sales, and increase the predictability of where companies are allowed to work on the land base.” She noted the province has made a commitment to address the issue.

Delegates to the COFI convention will be busy looking to the future but a spectre from the past still haunts them. The decades-long dispute with the imposition of duties on Canadian softwood lumber products entering the United States persists. It is an old game with no apparent winners.

The most recent skirmish came in February when the U.S. Department of Commerce indicated its intention to raise current duties on Canadian softwood lumber. The move was roundly criticized by B.C., and Mary Ng, the federal Minister of Export Promotion, International Trade and Economic Development.

“Canada is disappointed that the United States continues to impose unwarranted and unjust duties on Canadian softwood lumber products,” said Ng. “These duties impact our innovative Canadian softwood industry. And with the significant current challenges in housing supply and affordability, these duties also harm U.S. consumers and businesses that need Canadian lumber.”

The Canadian softwood lumber producers have long suggested a bipartisan panel with the U.S. to hammer out a lasting solution. But the overtures have been consistently rebuked by the U.S. protectionist lobby.

For the latest information on the
COFI convention agenda consult
www.cofi.org

Jim Stirling

Author

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