Timber pinch comes early

Most people were caught off guard by the announced closure of mills in Quesnel and Houston last week.

Most people were caught off guard by the announced closure of mills in Quesnel and Houston last week.

It’s not that we didn’t know there will be an inevitable mill crisis when the province decides it’s time to reverse its uplifts on annual allowable cuts (AAC) due to the mountain pine beetle.

Many of us thought mills would continue to operate at full throttle until the fallback to previous timber harvesting levels came into place, and that’s not supposed to happen for another five years or so. At least that’s been the standard line from commentators.

The standard line was wrong.

It is clear now that the economics of harvesting dead pine – and not provincial policy – will drive the future of B.C. mills, irrespective of any future fallback to pre-mountain pine beetle AACs. It was always thus and any of us gullible enough to believe there might still be five or more years of dead pine worth harvesting and mills would hum along until then, had a reality bath last week.

The dead pine is still there, and mills will still process it, but it clearly isn’t worth the trouble it previously was. Nobody yet knows how the mill closures will shake out in the logging end of the industry, where most forestry workers are employed. It seems like it should be a zero-sum situation for loggers because Canfor and West Fraser are swapping timber licenses, but it isn’t zero-sum. The industry has permanently contracted.

To put it another way, nothing has changed with anyone’s AAC. It’s just that two fewer mills are required to handle the volume of timber which licensees consider worth harvesting.

Another shake-out that we don’t understand yet relates to silviculture implications.

If it’s quickly becoming not worth pulling out and processing, what does that mean for the dead pine still standing? Who replants those areas of standing dead pine?

As I understand it, the province’s silviculture program relies on a replanting debt license holders assume when they log the bush. If a dead tree isn’t cut down, it also isn’t replaced.

A final shakeout is the effect the contraction of the regional forest industry will have on all of us.

Even if West Fraser and Canfor manage to find placements for every one of their employees affected by the mill closures, that doesn’t change the fact that almost 500 jobs were lost last week.

Five hundred internal vacancies won’t be filled by new workers and their families moving to Quesnel or Houston. Jobs that were there, but are soon to be gone, are jobs lost, no matter how you slice the forest license pie or move workers around the province.

This is terrible news for Houston and Quesnel as communities. The closure of the Houston Forest Products mill is devastating. The Houston mill was also the buyer of a lot of timber harvested in the Lakes timber supply area.

There’s no silver lining here, but it is a credit to Canfor and West Fraser that they’ve given so much advance notice to workers and their communities.

West Fraser and Canfor set themselves up for much potential difficulty by announcing the closure of the mills so far in advance. Workers will immediately want to look for work elsewhere, and in an industry so hungry for labour, it could mean operational problems.

Both companies could have waited until the final days and given short notice, which would have hurt workers and their families. At least now there’s time for plans to be made and for both companies to work with their employees to make the best of a very difficult situation.


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