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West Fraser cautiously stable after curtailments

Forest company still feeling pressures

With Canfor announcing the shutdown of a pulp line at one of its Prince George factories, putting up to 300 direct employees out of work, and the company blaming not bad markets but bad forestry conditions, communities that depend on the forest sector have been reacting with fearful caution.

Canfor’s assertion was that lack of wood fibre was the culprit in the need to shut down the pulp operation. The wood chips that normally come from sawmill leftovers are not available, because sawmills are not cutting enough lumber due to timber shortages in the forests, was the explanation.

Canfor is one of northern B.C.’s biggest forest companies, and West Fraser Timber is the other giant. West Fraser, too, announced the full closure of a sawmill, that being their Perry Sawmill in northeast Florida near Tallahassee.

“The indefinite curtailment of Perry Sawmill will impact approximately 126 employees and will reduce West Fraser’s U.S. lumber production by 100 million board feet,” said a company statement on Jan. 10. “West Fraser expects to mitigate the impact on effected employees by providing work opportunities at other West Fraser operations.

High fiber costs at Perry and a low-price commodity environment have impaired its ability to profitably operate. The indefinite curtailment of Perry Sawmill better aligns our production capacity with demand.”

Local residents dependent on the forest sector, directly or indirectly, wonder what West Fraser has in store for the B.C. Central Interior. The company has eight operations in Quesnel, the town in which was founded. They also have operations in Chetwynd, Smithers, Fraser Lake, 100 Mile House, two in Williams Lake, four locations in the Lower Mainland, more in Alberta, four in eastern Canada, and an extensive network in the States. The company even has six operations in Europe.

West Fraser’s senior vice-president of government and corporate relations, James Gorman, told Black Press that we were living in “challenging times in British Columbia’s forest sector. Despite an abundance of trees in the province, pest infestations, wildfire, government policy decisions, and land-access constraints have severely reduced the available timber supply. “

These topics were splayed across the discussion table at the BC Natural Resources Forum in Prince George, this week, as premier David Eby and a contingent of cabinet ministers, almost 40 First Nations chiefs, hundreds of private sector operators like Gorman, and even some protestors calling for forest policy improvements all converged in dialogue.

“The resulting imbalance has forced companies like ours to make difficult decisions to align our manufacturing capacity with reduced timber supply across our operating regions,” Gorman said. “Last summer we announced the permanent curtailment of one shift at each of our Fraser Lake and Williams Lake sawmills and at our Quesnel Plywood mill, impacting approximately 140 employees. Those changes achieved that alignment.

“That said, the ground beneath our feet continues to shift,” he cautioned. “Government initiatives along with naturally occurring phenomenon like wildfire, all have the potential to further impact fiber supply. It has never been more important for industry, governments, and First Nations to work together to support forest dependent communities and advance reconciliation objectives. Together, we can do better.”