Guest viewpoint by Steve Zika.
While everyone is entitled to their opinion and we do not often get involved in political propaganda, I felt I had to respond to the continual attacks on Babine Forest Products (BFP) and the community of Burns Lake through the recent misinformation generated by member of legislative assembly Bob Simpson.
After the terrible accident on the night of Jan. 20, 2012, many government leaders of different political leanings reached out to help our employees and the community of Burns Lake. It was bad enough that two of our employees were killed and many others seriously injured in the accident, but it left Burns Lake without its major economic engine. Since that time as unemployment aid has run out, the community is experiencing significant poverty and increasing levels of social problems associated with high unemployment. Babine is a joint venture between Hampton Affiliates and six First Nations. Over 45 per cent of the workforce was First Nations. Babine is committed to hiring local individuals and ensuring creation of employment opportunities for First Nations people. Babine strongly supports First Nations employment and believes our sawmill business is a model example of a successful partnership with First Nations that supports the entire community. All of our employees, contractors and the community of Burns Lake were facing a dismal economic future if the BFP sawmill was not rebuilt.
Realistically, there was no magic bullet, new industry, or easy solution that government could have employed to help Burns Lake. Instead, similar to trying to promote economic development in any rural community, government leaders recommended a proactive approach using existing infrastructure and available resources to find a solution. The alternative of doing nothing would result in a community that would have suffered even more and required significant government assistance for many years to come. The local community, including First Nations, rallied around rebuilding a sawmill and trying to find enough fibre to ensure a new facility could be financed and sustainable. When the bipartisan mid-term Timber Supply Committee was formed, Burns Lake had by far the most supporters, testimony, and ideas for helping out in an area devastated by the mountain pine beetle. The Committee took hours and hours of public comment and came up with some concepts for managing through the beetle crisis that the current government is now employing.
I would like to set the record straight on several matters. Hampton Affiliates which is the majority partner in BFP has not been a member of the U.S. Lumber Coalition since 2006. The world has changed now with Canfor, West Fraser and Interfor buying U.S. sawmills and the export tax becoming less relevant each day.
Since the terrible tragedy, Hampton has not “cut and run” despite significant timber supply risk and competitive pressures. Insurance will not cover the entire rebuild cost and the owners of BFP are taking a significant risk in moving forward.
The new sawmill is designed to operate at 65 per cent of the former sawmill capacity to live with local available timber supply, but still create meaningful employment. I do not see any other competitors offering to reduce shifts.
Yes, we received some commitments from the government to incentivize us to rebuild – to help the struggling Burns Lake community – similar to what would be offered to any company willing to risk their capital to create jobs in a rural town. The actual commitments we received prior to our decision to rebuild were as follows.
First, an offer to First Nations and the Burns Lake community to establish a new community forest, similar to what is now being offered to Fraser Lake and Vanderhoof. This is not a government subsidy program, as all volume must be purchased at fair market value.
Second, an offer to local First Nations of a low-volume NRFL in the Lakes District. Given the definition of qualifying timber included in this NRFL offer, limited volume will likely be harvested at all, with any volume to BFP being very uncertain given the likely location of timber actually eligible for harvest.
Thirdly, they agreed to introduce legislation allowing for conversion of volume-based licences to more sustainable area-based licences. While we would hope that BFP would be at the front of the list if the legislation is approved, we would have to go through the transparent public process that any licence holder will be required to complete to be eligible for conversion.
I would hardly refer to the above commitments as “turning forest policy on its head to favour Hampton” and no other licence holders in the Lakes District have been forced to give up their tenures. Babine is not looking for a handout, but a hand-up would be a great example of cooperation between government, First Nations, a family-owned company, and the local community as a vision for future success in British Columbia.