Handing out money to aspiring forest industry professionals and checking out the site of their new local office are signs COFI is enjoying the forestry climate of Prince George.
The Council of Forest Industries held its annual community dinner in P.G. on Thursday, the climax of several days of local activity for the Vancouver-based lobby group that advocates across Canada and around the world for the B.C. forest sector. This year was one of the sunniest in recent memories for more than just weather reasons.
COFI president and CEO John Allan said he was proud to hand out 10 cheques for $1,000 each to the top students in their scholarship competition, because they were choosing a field that has weathered yet another economic tempest and is looking more resilient than ever.
He and other COFI officials also went to the block on George Street where the Wood Innovation and Design Centre will be constructed. Allen said COFI's local offices would be inside that wood-focused building.
"I think we've turned the corner on 2006-10, a grim four years," he said. "It looks like the trend is there now on a more sustainable base for the U.S. housing market to grow again," plus a large customer base developing at the same time in China. B.C. now has multiple client regions buying wood products.
"I hope we have learned our lesson," about relying solely on the U.S. market to sell our lumber, Allan said. "As a reward for our dedication to the United States consumers, the United States [government] has sued us and made allegations about our forest practices. There is no legal action going on right now, which is a rare event."
He cautions, though, that the federal government has applied to join the Trans Pacific Partnership - a trading block of countries encircling the Pacific Ocean - and the U.S. is using that application process to fight for adding new Canadian lumber disadvantages.
"It's another advantage of how you still have to be vigilant," he said. "They [U.S. lumber lobbyists] are like rust, they never sleep."
Closer to home, COFI is "taking ownership of the issue" of mill safety, said Allan. The fatal blasts at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake and Lakeland Mills in Prince George have been felt industry-wide and COFI is helping to implement change as quickly and efficiently as possible before winter, when the mills of B.C. close all the windows and doors to ward off the cold.
"We need to assure families that it is safe to work in those mills," he said.
The destroyed mills also aggravated the already existing issue of pine beetle devastation in Central Interior forests. Allan said the supply of wood was a harsh reality, even with the government's best efforts so far to find better ways of keeping up the lumber numbers. He knew of no mills expected to close, as a result of the mid-term timber shortage created by the mass death of pine trees, but he insisted that it was a distinct possibility especially in the Cariboo.
"We are at risk, in terms of timber supply, and we are all in this together: industry, government, First Nations, communities, labour... We have to look at every option we have, and we need careful analysis before decisions are made."
That careful analysis by government has been impaired in recent years, he said, citing an Auditor General report scolding the province for less than satisfactory data collection and silviculture practices. Allen said, "The next party to form government, regardless of who they are, really has to come to grips with timber supply and address what needs to be addressed."