New forests secretary will visit hard-hit mill towns

B.C.'s new parliamentary secretary for forests says he is up to the challenge of helping repair a devastated industry.

Ravi Kahlon, MLA for North Delta, was appointed to the position late last month. He joins Forests Minister Doug Donaldson and his deputy minister, John Allan, as they work to support the sector through layoffs, mill closures and curtailments.

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Timber companies continue to consolidate and close operations in the face of a dwindling allowable annual cut, following years of increased harvest because of the pine-beetle epidemic.

In the first seven months of 2019, three B.C. mills closed and another 19 have announcement curtailments and shift reductions, according to the Forests Ministry. An estimated 3,984 workers have been affected.

Kahlon said the terrible situation triggers memories of his own family struggling after their local mill closed when he was a child.

Next week, he will begin travelling to affected communities to learn what challenges they face and unique solutions they seek.

The ministry has been meeting with workers to assess their needs and with forestry companies to discuss responsibilities such as supporting workers close to retirement and finding new jobs for others, Kahlon said.

Kahlon joins a team which includes Larry Pedersen, B.C.'s chief forester from 1994 to 2004, who the province has contracted to evaluate the affect of mill closures and provide advice regarding tenure sales that may arise under Bill 22.

The bill, enacted in May, requires forest firms to obtain government approval and consider public interest before transferring cutting-rights agreements to another party. A $60-million proposal made by Canfor and Interfor will be the first tested by the new policy. Pedersen is also providing guidance to executives at both firms.

"I think this work, to be honest, would have been great to have happening a long time ago," Kahlon said. "But it's very important that we get at this now and that communities feel like they have a voice in the future."

Kahlon said he is outraged the B.C. Liberals didn't do more to protect the industry while in power, given that it received a report in 2015 describing a grim future for Interior mills following the mountain pine beetle.

A copy of the Murray Hill Consulting report, recently obtained by Postmedia, shows that the authors forecast the eventual closure of at least seven mills to allow remaining mills to operate at a "reasonable" level, and of up to 13 mills to allow the rest to operate at close to capacity.

The blaming goes both ways.

"They say we ignored the problem," said opposition critic John Rustad. "Sorry for using language but that's just B.S."

Rustad, MLA for Nechako Lakes, said the previous Liberal government had a strategy to create diversification in forestry-dependent communities. Before the last election, the ministry made plans to meet with communities and discuss transitioning efforts starting in the summer 2017, but that plan was dropped by the new government, he said.

But there's plenty the province can do now including updating stumpage fees monthly, rather than quarterly, to more closely align with fluctuating market conditions, he said.

The province could also hire workers and contractors for wildfire risk management and ask the federal government for urgent support, Rustad said. He pointed to a letter co-signed last week by 21 northern B.C. mayors calling on Ottawa to provide assistance to affected communities and transitioning workers.

"Quite frankly, I've been shocked that they (the B.C. government) have been absent on the file," he said.

"They're running around talking about the Interior revitalization and it's great that they've appointed a parliamentary secretary, but we've got the community of Fort St. James declaring a state of financial emergency - I don't think there's ever been a community that's done that before."

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