There are still trees. Don’t let the ever-longer list of mill closures throughout B.C. mislead you. There are trees and trees still grow.
In the B.C. forest industry, what there isn’t much of any more is patience – not among the multinational companies that overwhelmingly own the mills and answer to shareholders, and not within successive governments grown addicted to quick lumber bucks.
But desperation is the mother of invention – or re-invention as the case may be – and there are those who see opportunity in the ashes of B.C.’s ailing forest industry.
“We knew there was a downturn coming,” says John Kalmokoff, forester for the First Nations community of Tsq’escen’, or the Canim Lake band, an idyllic Secwepemc community located on the edge of Wells Gray Provincial Park about a half hour drive northeast of 100 Mile House.
“Canim Lake band has been saying probably for the last five years, we knew the cut was going to drop and we asked them to ramp the cut down in a series of steps.”
The idea was that it is better to fall 10 feet five times, than 50 feet all at once. It’s sensible. Unfortunately, oftentimes politics and the pursuit of profits are not.
Dozens of mills have shut down or curbed production, leaving thousands of forest workers out of work in rural B.C.
It would have been a very tough step down for a government facing a tough election fight. And then it might have been a stumble for a new government hoping to make a good impression. And so successive governments went with what Kalmokoff calls the “rupture model.”
“Just go until the thing ruptures,” he says.
And here we are. Dozens of mills have shut down or curbed production, leaving thousands of forest workers out of work in rural B.C.
In the 100 Mile House area, in Tsq’escen’s traditional territory, Norbord has shuttered its oriented strand board plant while West Fraser closed its Chasm mill. Its 100 Mile mill is operating on reduced shifts.
“I think the age of the super-mill is coming to an end and these giant logging operations that do 50 loads a day,” Kalmokoff says.
“I think the future is in more small tenure holders, more log sorting, more value-added log markets, more house logs – a smaller scale, more localized forest industry. There probably will always be a big mill where you send 50 per cent of your wood, but a bunch will also be sorted and hopefully going to different value-added manufacturers - just a more diverse industry.”
Yes, Tsq’escen’ saw it coming. Hell, everyone saw it coming. But the Canim Lake council actually prepared for it. More than a decade ago, the community developed a Key Interest Area within its traditional territory and opposed logging within that area.
But while the band has staunchly protected this KIA, they have not been granted the forestry tenure for the area. Canim Lake has a Woodlot and a First Nations Woodlands Licence totalling about 33,000 cubic metres of timber a year now. They want 75,000 cubic metres of annual cut and they want a lower stumpage fee, competitive with other jurisdictions and on par with what other communities pay (First Nations Woodland Licencees pay a significantly higher stumpage rate than holders of Community Woodlots – a disparity that is a burr under the saddle of the First Nations Woodlot holders, to say the least).
“It was more than a decade ago that the chief and council of the Canim Lake band was talking about how the mills were going to run themselves out of wood. And our elders were saying that,” Kalmokoff says.
“So the community carved out an area of land and has protected it. If they hadn’t done that it would be logged out right now.”
Now they want a land-based tenure for that area.
“We’re more interested in getting into some kind of smaller scale, value-added opportunity,” Kalmokoff says.
British Columbia is at a crossroads. There is a good possibility that the era of the American mega-mills is coming to an end.
Will we look to diversify and localize the timber industry? Or will we squeeze the raw resource to the last 2x4?
“The industry is shrinking and there’s nothing we can do about that,” Kalmokoff says. “But the big problem is the Crown is greedy for stumpage.”
British Columbia is at a crossroads.
The way the bid by billionaire Jim Pattison to purchase Canfor plays out will be telling.
Canfor shareholders will vote on the proposal at a special meeting on December 18. The company’s board of directors has endorsed the $981-million offer from Pattison’s Great Pacific Capital Corp. to purchase all shares it does not already own.
Two-thirds of shareholders must vote in favour for the deal to pass. It will also need court approval.
Then, it will need timber to log. Lots of it.
“That’s going to clearly be a signal from the government – are they going to support even more consolidation and push First Nations out even further or are they going to take this as an opportunity to diversify and include First Nations more?” Kalmakoff asks.
“If the government was to break up tenure and dish it out to a whole bunch of people and you get a whole bunch of little operators, they’re all paying taxes, they’ve all got employees. They’re just too focused on stumpage revenue and they’re not thinking about the Interior having 3,000 new jobs and 40 new businesses and what those benefits will be.”
“They just want that stumpage dollar.”
Dene Moore is an award-winning journalist and writer. A news editor and reporter for The Canadian Press news agency for 16 years, Moore is now a freelance journalist living in the South Cariboo. Moore’s two decades in daily journalism took her as far afield as Kandahar as a war correspondent and the Innu communities of Labrador. She has worked in newsrooms in Vancouver, Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, St. John’s and Edmonton. She has been published in the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s magazine, the New York Times and the Toronto Star, among others. She is a Habs fan and believes this is the year.
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