With last week's news that two northern sawmills will be closed and two major forestry corporations will swap harvesting rights to keep two other mills open, forestry stakeholders are wondering how many more industry jobs will be lost.
Last summer's B.C. Legislature committee report on the province's timber supply made 22 recommendations on getting the forest industry through the damage caused by the mountain pine beetle epidemic with as few jobs lost and mills closed as possible.
"We came out with some recommendations and strategies to minimize what the downfall consequences would be and maximize the strategies for going forward," said Nechako-Lakes MLA John Rustad, who co-chaired the committee. His riding includes Houston, where West Fraser will close its existing sawmill and flip its nearby harvesting rights to Canfor so the Canfor mill in Houston can survive. Canfor did the same for West Fraser in Quesnel.
"We hoped the changes we suggested would be enough to offset the challenges faced by companies, but a lot of the business of forestry is outside our control," Rustad said. "I am still optimistic about those recommendations and what they will mean."
Rustad's co-chair, NDP forestry critic Norm Macdonald, said some of the recommendation topics saw regression.
"We did talk about making sure we invested in good inventories and good replanting. The government reduced budgets for both those issues," he said. "The raw log issue was also ignored. We also wanted to look at the marginal stands of timber where opportunities could be. More wood is actually there than was first thought, we know that, and better inventories would have been useful for Houston and Quesnel."
Rustad took exception to the inventory claims. He said update surveys were done all along "but you never waste money on a full inventory when you're still in the middle of significant change where you have no way of predicting how stable your data is," but now that the mountain pine beetle has chewed through most of the northern forest that detailed work can begin. However, Rustad added, Quesnel was one area where there were more careful inventories done due to it being the first major pine beetle outbreak area. As a result, Canfor and West Fraser knew that the marginal stands of timber were not better stocked than in other areas like around Burns Lake. In the Burns Lake zone, more timber was found than was originally believed to be there. That was partly what convinced ownership group Hampton Affiliates to go ahead with a rebuild of the Babine Forest Products mill that was destroyed in a deadly explosion and fire in January 2012.
Macdonald pointed to the raw log issue as one that appears on the surface to be unrelated but is actually tied directly to the loss of sawmills.
"The legislation still exists saying if logs can be milled in B.C. they have to be. The government has been under intense lobbying pressure from business to simply knock the trees down and ship them. Under the BC Liberals, we have seen raw logs expand to a huge degree while domestic mills are shutting down due to lack of fiber. It speaks to a lack of planning."
Macdonald said the government can't say that their BC Jobs Plan is an agent of change on the economy without acknowledging it is failing in the forest sector.
"This industry, forestry, is government managed more so than any other industry. There is a role there for government," he said. "The government has an obligation to get more out of the resource than we are. We are exporting six million cubic metres of raw logs from coastal forests, an absolutely huge amount of unprocessed wood. It's all going off shore. There is work available in that timber that is not getting done by our people, it is gainful employment and positive economy being handed to other countries, while our mills are closing down."
Canfor and West Fraser both stressed that the employees affected, totalling 434 direct jobs, were being offered positions elsewhere in the company, as well as help locating alternate employment with other companies if they could not practically move from their current hometowns. The closures do not take effect until March at the earliest.