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B.C. forestry company, union, northern town blast province for handling of timber supply

Conifex, United Steelworks, District of Mackenzie say ‘Mackenzie was singled out in a bad way’
Downturns and layoffs in the forestry sector in Mackenzie, B.C. has prompted a series of rallies over the past decade.

In an open letter to residents, Conifex, the United Steelworkers and the District of Mackenzie have accused the provincial government and B.C chief forester of unfairly singling out the Mackenzie area with forestry regulations that make the area uncompetitive.

The undated letter, published on Conifex’s website, says the“unsupported and unsupportable harvest requirement” in the in the Mackenzie timber supply area (TSA) “had a deep and profound impact on our community.”

“The forest sector in Mackenzie has been in a downward spiral for many years,” the letter says. “Conifex, the District of Mackenzie, and the United Steelworkers, with support from local First Nations, are committed to a recovery plan. We need the senior bureaucrats at the Ministry to transition away from compounding the challenges we face in Mackenzie to providing solutions which enable us to survive the future. We also need to take steps to ensure that more of the sawlog fibre sourced in Mackenzie is processed locally, rather than delivered to mills starved for sawlogs in Prince George, Quesnel and Vanderhoof.”

Conifex operates a sawmill and bioenergy plant in Mackenzie, a town of roughly 3,500 people located 180 kilometres north of Prince George, and has offices in Vancouver and Prince George.

According to the letter, in 2014 chief forester set the annual allowable cut (AAC) in the Mackenzie TSA at 4.5 million cubic meters of timber per year, based on the assumption that trees killed by the mountain pine beetle infestation would remain commercially usable for 15 years.

“The 15-year shelf-life assumption was based on what the Ministry refers to as ‘biophysical’ considerations. We were treated differently than our neighbouring TSA where the Ministry correctly used an assumption based on ‘economic’ considerations and acknowleged that ‘merchantable pine volume within an attacked stand deteriorates over time,’” the letter says “The Ministry has never provided justification for singling us out in Mackenzie, nor has it explained how doing so complied with provincial laws mandating the Chief Forester consider economic factors in harvest level determinations. Simple common sense indicates that the commercial value of a beetle- killed tree declines each passing year following mortality.”

The province knew then that after 10 years, 50 to 90 per cent of dead pine stand have decayed to a point where they are only useable for bioenergy, pulp or low-grade saw logs, the letter says.

In 2019, the chief forester amended the order and “The harvest of live, uninfested timber was further restricted to re-focus the harvest on dead, dying and damaged timber. While we agree with the principle of reserving green timber for harvesting after the salvage phase comes to an end, our concern was that an overly burdensome salvage harvest component results in commercial log values that are far below harvesting and delivery costs. This, in turn, leads to harvest curtailments and mill closures.”

The decision had a significant impact on the forest sector in Mackenzie, the letter says.

“In July 2019, Canfor Corporation’s Mackenzie sawmill operations were indefinitely curtailed affecting 225 employees. In June 2020, Paper Excellence’s Mackenzie pulp mill operations were indefinitely curtailed affecting over 250 employees,” the letter says. “Yet the Ministry bureaucracy continues to dismiss evidence that its stewardship of the TSA harms stakeholders, fails to optimize mid- and long-term timber supply, impedes reconciliation with local First Nations, and unnecessarily releases huge amounts of CO2 back into the atmosphere.”

Provincial data released in November 2020 showed there was still 60 million cubic metres of unharvested dead pine in the Mackenzie TSA, of which 70 per cent can no longer be classified as saw logs. Between 2009 and 2019, only 75 per cent of total annual allowable cut was harvested in the Mackenzie TSA, the letter added.

“We believe we all benefit if we find ways to raise the average annual harvest percentage to well above 75 (per cent) - without exceeding 100 (per cent) of course,” the letter says. “This way more of the land base in our TSA is reforested with faster growing, more disease-resistant seedlings, which increases mid[1]and long-term timber supply. This is the approach confirmed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, widely considered the world’s leading authority on climate science.”

An emailed response, the office of the B.C. Chief Forester said the chief forester’s decisions on annual allowable cut are independent decisions based on professional judgement and information ranging from technical reports to public input. The annual allowable cut in the Mackenzie TSA was increased from 3.05 million cubic metres of timber to 4.5 million in 2014, in response the mountain pine beetle epidemic.

“The partition amendment for the Mackenzie TSA was made in 2019 following careful consideration of detailed timber supply analyses, harvest performance review and input received from forest industry and First Nations,” the email said. “The primary purpose of the partitions is to provide room within the overall AAC to allow operators to salvage damaged timber (pine, spruce and balsam) while limiting the harvest of undamaged “green” timber so as to protect the mid-term timber supply. Ministry analysis has showed that harvesting green timber above the green partition level would adversely impact the mid-term timber supply which will result in increased risk to the manufacturing hub and employment within the community of Mackenzie.”

A second purpose of the measures imposed was to spread the harvest out in the TSA, to protect the timber in the southwest portion of the area, which is the most economic and easily accessible through the midterm, the email said.

The ministry is currently working in collaboration with local Indigenous groups to complete an updated timber supply analysis, and a public discussion paper on the analysis is scheduled to be release in June, the email added.

“The ministry understands that the economic viability of beetle-damaged timber in the TSA has decreased markedly since the last AAC determination. In 2021, we estimated that approximately 19 million cubic metres of beetle-killed timber was merchantable over the entire TSA and recognize that the profile will continue to decline in merchantability with time,” the email said. “We are also aware that the economic value of a significant portion of the remaining merchantable damaged timber in the northern part of the TSA have become too low for industry to cover extraction costs.”

A spokesperson for Conifex did return a request for comment as of Thursday afternoon.