South of Caycuse Camp — Enough prime old-growth timber to build about 2,350 average-sized homes, about 70,000 cubic metres, is rotting on Vancouver Island mountainsides because of a disagreement between two companies.
The trees were felled between 18 months and two years ago but left stacked beside logging roads or strewn across clearcuts where they are degraded by insects and weather.
They represent lost revenue for the province, for the company holding timber rights and for the contractor, lost wages for forest workers and lost business activity in small communities.
The timber rights belong to Western Forest Products, a forestry giant that succeeded Weyerhaeuser, itself a successor to MacMillan Bloedel. WFP contracts out the cutting and hauling of the trees, in this case to Island Pacific Logging. But the two companies have been locked in a lengthy dispute over the rates to be paid.
Norm Macleod is president of the Port Alberni Steelworkers local, 150 of whose members have been sidelined by this corporate argument. He says if the shutdown continues much longer, the old growth logs will have been cut for nothing, the wood will become worthless.
To get to the site in tree farm licence 44, which sprawls across 232,000 hectares of west central Vancouver Island in a vast triangle bounded by Ucluelet, Mount Arrowsmith near Nanaimo and Port Renfrew about two hours drive west of Victoria, I hitched a ride with out-of-work grader operator Craig Rowlinson.
We headed inland from Caycuse Camp on Cowichan Lake, bouncing into the bush along McClure Lake Main.
Rowlinson is a connoisseur of gravel travel. For decades he’s groomed the tangled maze that knits together cutblocks in this isolated southwest quadrant of Vancouver Island.
This is a place where the last of the big old growth is logged. You can still experience hair-whitening encounters with trucks barrelling toward you under loads the size of a small house, tires tossing loose rocks the size of baseballs toward your windshield.
We were bound for a rendezvous with Macleod. He was coming south from Port Alberni through Franklin Camp, enduring hours of tooth-rattling travel to reach us.
The narrow, increasingly rough road twisted up mountain sides until we were high enough to look down on clouds from the Pacific swirling in through valley bottoms.
The road petered out above a steep slope.
The logs were indeed prime. Many lay beside the road awaiting trucks that never came. Others were stacked beside idle grapple yarders. More lay strewn where they were felled.
I peeled bark. Inside, boring insects feasted with the enthusiasm of guests at a free banquet.
Macleod waved a hand across the hillside.
“Senseless,” he said. “This timber was worth about $7 million when it was cut. It will be worth about half that now. And if this drags on it will be worth almost nothing, just pulp. This is all wonderful wood for the two sawmills in town.”
Steve Drybrough, an Alberni Valley logging truck driver, just snorted. “An atrocity.”
“People don’t want to see old growth cut for nothing. This is beautiful wood but it’s going to cost millions of dollars to the taxpayer. This timber belongs to the people of B.C. and the revenues from it are supposed to be flowing to them.”
Meanwhile, the Truck Logger’s Association, representing over 450 independent forest contractors and their suppliers, observes that the province enabled concentration of ownership of forest licences more than a decade ago.
Has this policy unintentionally created an unequal playing field for the small contractors who negotiate operating rates with the fewer, bigger companies holding consolidated timber rights?
Since 2013, the truck loggers point out, more than 25 contractors have sought insolvency protection or been forced into bankruptcy and 10 went to mediation or arbitration when they couldn’t negotiate better rates.
Such disputes between the immense companies that control much of coastal B.C.’s public timber harvest and struggling independent contractors signal a forest sector malaise that deserves the province’s attention, the truck loggers warn.
Otherwise, expect to see more felled but unharvested logs like those in TFL 44, dwindling of stumpage revenues to the public purse, more idled forest workers like those in Port Alberni and yet more economic fallout as once-thriving forestry communities are rendered unsustainable.