Action needed to reverse forest jobs decline

From 2001 to 2015, the decline within the sector has been nothing less than catastrophic

Economist Randy Sunderman says more needs to be done to help B.C.'s forest industry.

Randy Sunderman

The forest sector has long been the backbone of the economy in many rural communities in British Columbia. However, over the past 16 years the contribution of the forest sector to B.C., and particularly rural B.C., has steadily declined.

One of the most unfortunate impacts has been in the value-added wood processing sector. This sector has long been recognized for its incremental value from each tree harvested. In the 1990s, the secondary wood sector was seen as a key opportunity to diversify and grow the wealth of the forest sector economy.

According to the Canadian Forest Service, the number of secondary wood manufacturers grew by 24 per cent, while employment grew by 21 per cent between 1990 and 1999. By 1999, British Columbia had an estimated 774 secondary wood manufacturing firms employing 20,190.

However, by 2012, this number had declined to 589 firms, a reduction of 24 per cent with employment declining by 23 per cent representing 4,600 fewer workers.

Looking at the total forest sector in British Columbia over the longer period from 2001 to 2015, the decline within the sector has been nothing less than catastrophic.

Over this 15-year period forestry and logging employment has declined by 40 per cent, wood products manufacturing by 32 per cent and paper manufacturing has lost 60 per cent of its employment. Only support services for forestry has seen employment remain stable.

According to Statistics Canada, employment in the forest sector has declined from 87,140 to 54,720, a staggering decline of 32,420 jobs or 37 per cent fewer jobs in 2015 than in 2001.

This has been during a period when timber harvest has remained relatively constant at between 60 and 80 million cubic metres annually.

For the communities of the North Thompson, data from the 2001 to 2011 period highlight a particularly difficult transition, with local forestry employment declining from 1,055 in 2001 to only 415 in 2011, a 60 per cent decline in overall forestry employment.

Within the logging sector alone, employment has declined from 420 to 235 over the 10-year period, with numerous small logging contractors and organizations such as the North Thompson Salvage Loggers Association now gone along with the employment they once created.

Sawmill closures are well known in the North Thompson, with Weyerhaeuser now just a namesake on a Clearwater park and the Tolko mill site now a predominately empty industrial park. This has all happened in a forest region that has a favorable fibre basket within the Interior.

Unfortunately, for the North Thompson the fall-down effects from the mountain pine beetle impact are now about to begin. We desperately need the provincial government to develop and implement changes to provincial forestry policy that increases the number of jobs and local rural community benefit created by every cubic metre of public timber that is harvested.

Creating more and larger Community Forests tenures, reinstating the small scale salvage program and developing a meaningful provincial value-added strategy would be a good start.

– Former Clearwater resident Randy Sunderman is an economist with  25 years of consulting experience with a focus in economic development, socio-economic analyses, land use planning assessments, feasibility assessments, and business development. He lives in Kamloops.