The 203 employees of Merritt’s Tolko sawmill report for their last week at the mill Monday. The workers ran the last logs through the mill last week and now are shutting down the site.

The mill closes this Friday, with no reopening scheduled.

Some employees have worked at the mill for decades. Some are retiring. Some are transferring to Tolko mills in Armstrong, Vernon, Quesnel, Williams Lake and elsewhere. Others will be looking for work. However, with decreasing log supplies in the B.C. Interior and soft foreign markets for B.C. softwood lumber, an uncertain future looms for many B.C. sawmill workers.

When Tolko announced the shutdown last September, it cited a timber-supply shortage.

In March, the province decreased the allowable annual cut for the Merritt timber supply area from 2.4 million cubic metres to 1.5 million, a 37.5 per cent drop. The province also announced the cut would decrease further by 2021, to 1.2 million cubic metres. The annual allowable cut is the amount of timber that can be harvested sustainably within a given area.

The decreases occur as the supply of mountain pine beetle-killed timber in the region comes to an end. The new allowable amount compares with that set for the Merritt region before the beetle epidemic began.

In the 1990s, a beetle infestation in central B.C. began to spread throughout the province’s extensive pine forests. Aided by a combination of provincial reforestation and wildfire-suppression practices and a long stretch of mild winters, the beetle attacked and killed stand after stand of mature pine trees.

The epidemic eventually affected more than 18 million hectares of B.C. Interior forests. It crossed the Rocky Mountain barrier into Peace River country and Alberta’s eastern mountain slopes, and now threatens to spread east through Alberta’s boreal forest.

Total cumulative losses from the outbreak are projected to amount to 752 million cubic metres — almost 60 per cent — of B.C.’s merchantable pine volume by 2017. As the beetle chewed its way through the province’s pine forests, the government ramped up annual allowable cut for affected areas, permitting forest companies to remove as much of the dead and dying pine timber from the landscape as possible while the wood retained marketable value.

Since 2005, going to Slegg’s Lumber or any other building-supply store to purchase lumber has meant picking through two-by-fours marked by the beetle’s passage. Much of the pine lumber sold these days is streaked blue-grey — a sign of the fungi that hitchhiked aboard the beetles as they made their way through B.C.’s forests and helped the insects overcome the trees’ natural defences.

The stain does not affect lumber strength or quality.

Beetle-killed trees left in the forest lose their market value over time. They dry out. They crack and split. They start to rot. Critters move in, making the snags their homes and providing other, ecological kinds of value to the wood.

With little salvageable beetle timber left, cut levels must also decrease. With less wood to process, more mill shutdowns are expected in B.C.

The post-beetle closures have already started. In 2014, Canfor and West Fraser closed mills in Quesnel and Houston, in the heart of beetle-epidemic country.

About that time, the Globe and Mail reported both companies cutting 928,000 cubic metres worth of young, healthy trees, unaffected by pine beetle and earmarked for future harvests, in the Morice timber supply area near Houston, since 2008. That overcutting will further depress the amount of harvestable timber for decades to come. Neither company was fined.

The B.C. Mill Status Report documents an industry reacting to uncertainty caused by the dwindling log supply, increased log costs and a downturn in foreign markets. And by removing the requirement that companies process harvested timber at the closest available mill, the province’s 2003 Forestry Revitalization Plan creates additional uncertainty for many mill-dependent B.C. communities.

Now Canada-U.S. softwood lumber negotiations are stalled, U.S. lumber producers are calling for tariffs on Canadian softwood exports south of the border and the incoming president has indicated pro-protectionist preferences — but nobody is really sure of Donald Trump’s intentions or how they will play out.

Change and uncertainty appear to be the only constants the province’s forest industry and forest-dependent communities can depend on.