The provincial government’s grand strategy for revitalizing the coastal forest industry, upon which many communities outside Metro Vancouver are heavily dependent, is adrift and in the doldrums.
At least, that appears to be the view of mayors from 27 coastal forestry communities just surveyed by the Truck Loggers Association for its report Community Perspectives on the B.C. Coastal Forest Industry.
The organization, which since 1943 has represented more than 450 independent sawmills, logging contractors, small tenure harvesters, road builders, trucking firms, log brokers, value-added wood remanufacturers and industry suppliers in more than 100 communities across the coastal forest region, last surveyed the mayors in 2004 just as government launched its restructuring strategy.
Back then it found a strong sense of optimism about the future among community leaders over plans to transform a flagging forest sector that’s always been an economic underpinning of prosperity in B.C. Almost nine in 10 mayors was upbeat and saw bright prospects for communities.
This time the Truck Loggers report that despite a few bright spots, gloom hangs over many iconic coastal forestry centres. Sixty-two per cent of the mayors say the industry is in worse shape today than a decade ago.
There are worries about a hemorrhage of local forestry jobs even as raw log exports — and the jobs they represent — accelerate. Provincial statistics show that exports of whole unprocessed logs have tripled in volume since 2009, most of them bound for Asian markets, where they are processed using cheaper labour.
Put another way, during the past five years, B.C. has shipped unprocessed timber sufficient to build more than 800,000 houses. Meanwhile, critics note that in the last decade, more than 70 sawmills have closed and 30,000 forestry jobs in B.C. have evaporated.
Using the widely employed estimate that it takes 1,300 cubic metres of raw wood to sustain one forestry job in B.C., then an export since 2011 of 29.7 million cubic metres of unprocessed logs to Asia for manufacturing offshore should represent the export of about 22,800 B.C. forestry jobs.
The Private Forest Landowners Association, whose members provide the bulk of raw logs for export, is adamant that such exports are not the cause of mill closures and job losses. It argues on its website that without log exports there’d be no feedstock for domestic sawmills because the premium prices raw logs command make it economically viable to sell logs to B.C. mills at artificially low prices.
Besides, the advocacy group maintains, “there’s no such thing as a raw log” because once trees are felled they are “manufactured” and “manufactured logs are no different than any other product — lumber, pulp, poles, veneer — they are but one in a mix of forest products.”
Interesting points but they don’t seem to have convinced either the mayors or the Truck Loggers that all is rosy in the woods and that they are being kept afloat by raw log exports and consolidated forest tenures.
The Truck Loggers point out that more than 25 of the contractors who provide the backbone of timber harvesting have gone bankrupt since the province restructured tenures by consolidating them while simultaneously deregulating forest management practices and decoupling harvest allocations from requirements to supply feedstock to domestic sawmills and pulp and paper mills.
And the mayors are saying that the province needs to revisit its strategic vision.
“Many coastal communities that were once heavily reliant on the forest industry are still reeling from the impacts of tenure consolidations and mill closures, with timber harvesting contractors and forestry-related business closing their doors,” the Truck Loggers conclude from their survey.
“Policy changes from 2003 have not, for the most part, yielded as much positive impact on our coastal communities as expected.
“There is consensus that more needs to be done. People in coastal communities, both rural and urban, need to have a better understanding of the sustainability of the coastal forest industry, stewardship practices and the benefits it offers to all British Columbians,” the report says.
“Our survey indicates community leaders are frequently unsure of the province’s efforts to improve forest practices and policies and even when they are aware they often have difficulty being heard.”
If the provincial government can just wrench its attention from self-congratulatory infatuation with the dreams of liquefied natural gas and pay attention to its existing economic bread and butter, perhaps it might prove fruitful to listen closely to the mayors.