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Mill closures in northern B.C. blamed on low timber supply, excessive rules

Government acknowledges need for more supply, blames closures on corporate decisions, markets

As job losses mount in B.C.’s forestry sector, a leading industry group is calling on the province to increase timber supply and speed up permitting.

On Thursday (May 9), Canfor announced it was halting plans to replace a decommissioned sawmill in Houston, permanently closing a sawmill in Bear Lake near Prince George, and indefinitely curtailing a production line at its Northwood Pulp Mill in Prince George.

Linda Coady, president and chief executive officer of the B.C. Council of Forest Industries, said Friday (May 10) that escalating closures and curtailments mean government “needs to move faster to stabilize timber supply”.

Coady’s statement echoes comments from Kevin Edgson, Canfor’s President and CEO.

“While the region has a substantive supply of sustainably grown timber, harvest levels are well below the Allowable Annual Cut partly due to natural disturbances, but increasingly because of the impact of a range of policy choices and regulatory complexity,” Edgson said Thursday day. “Despite exhaustive efforts, including expanding well beyond our traditional operating region, there is simply not enough residual fibre to supply the current production capacity of all our operations.”

RELATED: Canfor cancels planned new northern B.C. mill, closes another, curtails a 3rd

RELATED: Mayor says mill closure is ‘devastating’ for small community of Chetwynd, B.C.

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Forests Minister Bruce Ralston said Thursday that Canfor’s actions disappointed his government, noting families and communities in northern British Columbia will feel the impact.

“Workers shouldn’t bear the brunt of commodity cycles, as they have been forced to for years,” he said. He added government will support communities and work with partners to increase supply.

Recent provincial measures include economic support funds, and the appointment of Andrew Mercier as Minister of State for Sustainable Forestry Innovation with a focus on the timber supply.

Friday, Mercier pushed back against claims that Canfor’s decision was about supply.

“Deeply frustrated with the decision from Canfor’s board to close (Bear Creek Sawmill) & (a production line in Prince George) putting their people out of work,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “This is a decision based on market prices that impacts a lot of people. Heart goes out to all the workers and their families.”

Parts of the political opposition did not buy Mercier’s argument.

B.C. United Leader Kevin Falcon and shadow forests minister Mike Bernier said in a statement that these closures point to a broader trend that sees the forestry industry being forced to leave B.C.

“Under (Premier) David Eby, the NDP is facilitating the collapse of an industry that has long been the backbone of our provincial economy and has supported B.C. families for generations.”

Figures show B.C.’s forestry industry on a lengthy downward trend relative to other industries, with little improvement expected ahead. These recent closures join growing list of permanent closures and curtailments with devastating effects on communities long reliant on forestry, but lacking sufficiently diversified economies to withstand such closures.

RELATED: Workforce shortfalls top-of-mind at B.C. Economic Summit

RELATED: Influx of workers expected to fill job shortfalls in most areas of B.C.

Speaking to Black Press Media last year following closures in Chetwynd and Houston, Greg Halseth, Canada Research Chair in Rural and Small Town Studies at the University of Northern British Columbia, said such closures impact more than workers and their families.

“Everything from grocery stores and gas stations, to businesses that directly work with the primary industry, are all impacted,” he said. “Families with mortgages, vehicle loans, and other debts need to worry about replacement income. Families worry about having to move and losing their community connections. Children reflect some of the anxiety and concerns their parents are feeling.”

Communities also run the risk of losing established community leaders as workers and their families look for opportunities elsewhere, he added.

Halseth added impacted workers can receive support in many ways. Unfortunately, the response points to a larger problem.

“Economic emergency responses are, sadly, well-practiced in British Columbia as we continue to wait until a crisis occurs before we recognize longer-term challenges within existing economic sectors,” he said.

Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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