The planned closure of Tolko’s Merritt sawmill by the end of the year — throwing 200 workers out of a job — is the latest in 15 years of joblessness and permanent shutdowns in the Interior’s forest sector.
Citing a lack of timber, Tolko Industries Ltd. announced this week it will close its Nicola Valley sawmill in December — a major job loss in the community of 8,000.
The move will leave the city with just one sawmill, Aspen Planers, where it once had five.
Marty Gibbons, president of Steelworkers Local 1-417, has seen closure of mills in Valemount, Clearwater, Louis Creek, Canoe, Merritt and Kamloops.
In a statement, privately held Tolko Industries Ltd. blamed a wood-supply review. The resulting timber reduction follows the end of elevated cut levels for pine beetle-killed lumber.
Gibbons said the closure was not expected.
“We’ve heard rumblings,” said Gibbons. “There’s been suggestions. But, yes, it did catch us by surprise.”
Family-owned sawmill Ardew Wood Products in Merritt closed in January 2012 after 47 years of operation. The closure, blamed on a lack of timber, led to 55 job losses.
In a Business in Vancouver story from 2012, John Allen, CEO of the Council of Forest Industries, told the publication “there’s going to be increasing fibre shortages in the Interior and mill closures, but which ones and when and where is pretty complicated.”
City forester and former Venture Kamloops chairman Chris Ortner said Tolko’s closure was predictable and was likely on the books for as long as a decade.
“Our harvest levels are down 30 to 40 per cent and Merritt’s even more pine-dependent than Kamloops,” Ortner said, noting Tolko and other forest companies analyze wood flow and timber inventories to make decisions on where to invest major capital to make upgrades and improve efficiency.
The best example is Interfor’s $100-million sawmill in Adams Lake.
“You see where companies are capitalizing their mills,” Ortner said.
In the Kamloops region, Tolko operates the Heffley plywood plant that utilizes fir and is unaffected by pine beetle. Tolko has a lumber mill in Adams Lake, West Fraser has its Chasm lumber operation and Canfor operates its Vavenby lumber mill.
Gibbons acknowledged Merritt was one of the few Interior communities with competing sawmills. Most communities have been reduced to a single plant.
Harry Lali, an NDP candidate in next May’s election who is seeking to return to the legislature after a four-year hiatus, said the earlier closure of Weyerhaeuser’s Merritt mill was not as devastating because many employees went to work at Aspen Planers, which ramped up shifts.
Lali said he used tools by the NDP government of the day to ”hammer” Weyerhaeuser so Aspen Planers could run the planer mill.
“It’s operating today,” he said.
Under the NDP government of the 1990s, lumber harvesting was tied to jobs in local communities, but that system was abandoned by the B.C. Liberals.
“Forestry policy in this province is run in the boardrooms of Howe Street, not the boardrooms of the legislature, where it should be,” Lali said, arguing the B.C. Liberal government has a duty to employees and the community of Merritt to keep people working. He said the town lost more than 1,000 people early in the last decade when the Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government stripped government offices, resulting in direct job loss of 170 positions.
Forests Minister Steve Thomson said the province is sending a community transition team to Merritt following Tolko’s decision to close its sawmill.
Thomson called it an unfortunate development, but noted the transition team will help look for other opportunities and will provide support services for workers losing their jobs just before Christmas.