Fresh cut lumber is pictured stacked at a mill along the Stave River in Maple Ridge, B.C. Thursday, April 25, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Fewer trees, higher costs blamed for devastating downturn in B.C. forestry

Some say the high cost of logs is the major cause of the industry’s decline in B.C.

High log prices and dwindling timber supply are driving the crisis in British Columbia’s forestry industry that has devastated communities and kneecapped the provincial economy, observers say.

Companies have announced shutdowns or curtailments in more than two dozen mills in the province, putting hundreds out of work and slashing economic growth predictions. Advocates are calling for urgent government action to stem the bleeding.

“Something needs to change immediately or these small communities that don’t have other employers are going to wither and die,” said Marty Gibbons, president of United Steelworkers Local 1-417, based in Kamloops, B.C.

The local represents hundreds of forestry workers who have lost jobs in Interior communities including Merritt, Clearwater, Vavenby and Clinton.

The largest driving factor is the province’s complex stumpage system that results in high fees, he said.

“These are private businesses. If they can’t turn a profit, there’s no reason for them to run. Right now, it’s not the markets that are the issue. It’s the cost of the logs,” he said.

Stumpage is a fee businesses pay when they harvest timber from Crown land. The B.C. government calculates stumpage annually, so the system is less responsive than in Alberta, where monthly adjustments are made, Gibbons said.

READ MORE: Big rally in northern B.C. draws attention to continuing lumber crisis

The Forests Ministry said stumpage fees are based on market demand and the current rates reflect the scarcity of timber supply that has resulted from the mountain pine beetle outbreak and been exacerbated by several severe fire seasons.

Intervention in the stumpage system would weaken the legal case in the appeals of the duties imposed by the United States on softwood lumber from Canada, the ministry said in a statement.

“It is well-known that any interference in B.C.’s market-based timber pricing system would lead to an increase in softwood lumber duties levied by the U.S.,” it said.

Most of B.C.’s forest land is publicly owned, so companies have long-term tenure rights and the government charges them stumpage to harvest trees. In contrast, most land in the U.S. is private and companies face costs associated with replanting.

“That’s what the stumpage fee is all about,” explained Ken Peacock, chief economist of the Business Council of B.C. “It tries to equate, if it was privately owned, what the cost would be to operate and manage and reforest the land.”

Peacock said the high cost of logs is the major cause of the industry’s decline in B.C. He also blamed the mountain pine beetle and record-breaking 2017 and 2018 fire seasons for decimating supply.

The policies of Premier John Horgan’s government are also breeding uncertainty, Peacock argued.

The government is developing a caribou habitat protection plan that the industry expects will further restrict access to northern timber, he said, and it’s promised to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples without explaining how companies are meant to fulfil its requirement of “free, prior and informed consent” from First Nations.

The NDP government has also introduced Bill 22, which would control tenure transfers. Currently, a company that is scaling back or shutting down a mill can transfer its tenure to one that is operating, but the government wants oversight over these transfers to protect the “public interest,” a term not defined in the legislation, Peacock said.

“The picture here in B.C. is we are a very high cost jurisdiction. It’s actually less costly to operate in Alberta and companies can make a profit milling lumber and producing two-by-fours in Alberta.”

On top of all that, market conditions in North America are softening, he noted.

READ MORE: ‘A real shame’: Kelowna MLA says factors behind Tolko mill closing should have been caught

Forestry is the no. 1 engine that drives B.C.’s economy with nearly $15 billion in annual exports, representing one-third of the province’s international merchandise exports and the largest segment by far, said Peacock.

The Business Council of B.C. just trimmed its 2019 economic forecast in part because of the forestry downturn, from 2.2 to 2 per cent growth, he said. The B.C. government also just cut its forecast to 1.7 per cent, citing mill closures in part.

The Forests Ministry said the challenges the province is facing have been in the making for many years and the previous Liberal government ignored them and failed to help the sector and communities adapt.

“We have laid out a process … to bring together industry, First Nations, labour and communities to address the challenges and build a sustainable sector to protect jobs.”

Opposition Liberal forestry critic John Rustad has blamed the current government’s policies for “killing the industry” and resulting in more layoffs and closures.

Laura Kane, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Pitt Meadows ball hockey goalie gets call up to Team Canada

Matteo Petrelli will mind net for U20 team at world championships in Switzerland this summer

Maple Ridge’s Brandon Yip to play in KHL all star game in Moscow Sunday morning

Yip currently captains the Kunlun Red Stars who are based in Beijing

The value of a prison education

Kevin Heinze teaches continuing education at Fraser Regional Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge.

Along the Fraser: RIP Parker (1991-2019)

The Canadian Liver Foundation raises funds by recycling or scrapping old vehicles.

Letter: Allen Way rail crossing proposed in 1980

Pitt Meadows mayor at time wanted it at north Bonson.

BC Green Party leader visits northern B.C. pipeline protest site

Adam Olsen calls for better relationship between Canada, British Columbia and First Nations

B.C. society calls out conservation officer after dropping off bear cub covered in ice

Ice can be seen in video matted into emaciated bear cub’s fur

Horgan cancels event in northern B.C. due to security concerns, says Fraser Lake mayor

The premier will still be visiting the city, but the location and day will not be made public

B.C. landlord sentenced to two years in jail for torching his own rental property

Wei Li was convicted of intentionally lighting his rental property on fire in October 2017

VIDEO: Highway 1 left looking like winter war zone with dozens of stranded vehicles

Tow-truck driver says 30 vehicles still dot snowy landscape, including one rolled-over dairy truck

PHOTOS: Eastern Newfoundland reeling, search underway for missing man after blizzard

More than 70 centimetres of new snow fell overnight, creating whiteout conditions

Prince Harry, Meghan to give up ‘royal highness’ titles

‘Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved members of my family,’ says Queen Elizabeth II

Canada Post driver in hospital after ice smashes windshield at Massey Tunnel

Incident happened on Richmond side of the Massey Tunnel

Most Read