B.C. mills are running out wood

Instead of acknowledging that consumption must align with what the forests can sustain, the government seeks to bend supply to demand

On Jan. 20, the town of Burns Lake received national attention when a horrific explosion and ensuing inferno at the local sawmill killed two mill workers, and triggered the loss of 250 high-paying jobs.

But the town was wrestling with troubles before then. The forested slopes visible from the town centre turned a rusty red, as the mountain pine beetle infestation raced through British Columbia’s interior forests.

B.C.’s forest industry is in for a shakeup due to a grossly diminished pool of commercially harvestable trees. But there is another equally disquieting truth.

Around the time that the beetles arrived outside Burns Lake, Canfor reopened its sawmill in nearby Houston. With its $26.4 million upgrade, Canfor laid claim to the largest sawmill in the world. Lumber production shot up from an already formidable 450 million board feet per year to 600 million. Within a year Canfor posted record net income of $420.9 million and announced that it would invest $104 million to build a second mill in Vanderhoof, similar in size to its Houston operation. The result: two monster mills with Burns Lake sandwiched in between.

Canfor was not alone in supersizing its mills. In Quesnel, West Fraser did much the same thing, as did others. The result is milling horsepower that grossly exceeds what forests can supply.

How much so is spelled out in documents now before a committee of Liberal and NDP MLAs appointed by the provincial legislature to consult communities about the so-called “mid-term” timber supply.

The documents reveal that in four large forested areas, mills have an appetite for wood that cannot be sustained. In the Prince George area, sawmills can consume 15.8 million cubic meters of wood per year (one cubic meter roughly equals one telephone pole). Yet local forests in the near term will only be able to provide 6.4 million cubic meters, or 40 per cent of mill needs.

Around Burns Lake, the picture is even grimmer. Local mills can consume 1.9 million cubic meters, but in the near future forests will only be able to provide for 26 per cent of mill needs. In and around Quesnel and Williams Lake, the picture is only marginally better, with local forests likely to be able to meet only one-third of existing sawmill capacity in future years.

Into this volatile mix, the government proposes jettisoning rules that placed modest restrictions on logging activities in a tiny portion of old-growth forests, other forests meant to protect imperiled wildlife species, and some forests important to other sectors of the economy such as tourism. Some MLAs have gone further, suggesting that Tweedsmuir Park be logged.

Instead of acknowledging that consumption must align with what the forests can sustain, the government seeks to bend supply to demand. It’s a recipe for even more job losses in future years.

What are needed are policies that maximize social and economic returns from a much smaller resource base.

In Ontario and Quebec, provinces with significantly smaller annual log harvests than B.C., sales of higher-value wood products in 2010 were, respectively, $928 million and $825 million. Sales of similar goods from B.C. that same year were a paltry $345 million. For every 205 cubic meters and 298 cubic meters of trees harvested respectively in Ontario and Quebec that year, one full-time forest industry job was generated. Generating the equivalent job in B.C. required more than four times as much wood.

For years B.C.’s leaders have known that if we failed to follow these provinces up the value chain, a day of reckoning would come. Now is the time to reverse the trend. Getting more value from each log must become the new mantra.

– Ben Parfitt is resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.