Nine months ago, Eric Arnold reached his limit with a 150-kilometre roundtrip daily commute from his home in Prince George to his job in Bear Lake.
“I was sick and tired of taking my life in my hands every time I got behind the wheel to go to work,” Arnold said.
Over a two-month span, nine people on his shift had hit a moose, he said. Not only did the drive feel unsafe, he was racking up about $800 a month in fuel costs.
So Arnold quit his sawmill job to work on the fibre line at Canfor’s pulp and paper mill in Prince George.
“I’m the guy that sees the first set of chips before it goes into the mill.”
He thought the move would be a step up financially. And it was. But not for long.
On Jan. 11, Canfor announced it will permanently close the pulp line of its Prince George mill at the end of the current fiscal year. Arnold is one of almost 300 people who will lose their jobs.
“We understand and regret the impact today’s announcement has on our employees, their families, the businesses that support our operations, and the local community,” said Canfor president and CEO Kevin Edgson in a press release earlier this month.
$90 million manufacturing fund
In response, B.C. government announced a $90 million manufacturing fund, dispersed over three years, to support high value industrial and manufacturing projects in rural communities, including those negatively impacted by changes in the forestry sector.
“These investments in rural B.C. will help create sustainable, secure, good paying jobs,” said Premier David Eby, adding the money will go where it’s needed most.
Any applicants from the Prince George area will be competing with proposals from other communities around the province. The new fund targets areas outside Metro Vancouver and Victoria, prioritizing forest sector initiatives, forestry-dependent communities, and projects led by, or benefiting, Indigenous people.
Eby encouraged small and medium-sized companies to submit proposals.
Funding could help companies adopt innovative processes to manufacture value-added forestry products like mass timber, said Jobs Minister Brenda Bailey at the funding announcement in Prince George on Jan. 18, along with the premier and Forests Minister Bruce Ralston.
The fund allows eligible projects to access up to $10 million per capital project, along with as much as $50,000 for the planning, assessment, and business development stages.
“It could be investing in a forestry company so that they can upgrade aging equipment to support new product lines, or smaller diameter tree harvesting and manufacturing, or to help a manufacturing company expand adopt new technologies and processes,” Bailey said.
‘No one was asking for that’
“They make an announcement with no details … as to what that money’s going to go towards. No one in the industry was asking for that,” said BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon at a press conference in Prince George this week.
Falcon, Eby and a handful of provincial cabinet ministers and MLAs from all parties were in town attending the annual Natural Resources Forum.
“What this industry needs is certainty,” said Falcon. “They need a government that is going to make it clear what the rules of the game are, so that they can make investment, confident in knowing that the goalposts aren’t going to keep shifting,” Falcon said.
Canfor blamed the most recent shutdown on reductions in the allowable annual cut – reduced after multiple years of higher-than-usual harvesting for pine and spruce beetle infestations – and “challenges accessing cost-competitive fibre.”
“We need to right-size our operating platform,” Canfor’s Edgson said.
“That really translates into one simple thing, Centre for Policy Alternatives researcher Ben Parfitt, told the Prince George Post. “There are not enough trees remaining to be logged that have sufficient commercial value to support the industry.”
“I don’t like the way that Canfor has let these people go without any consultation, without any kind of mediation or looking for solutions,” said Prince George resident Herb Martin at a rally in Prince George to support workers affected by the Canfor closure. Martin has worked for decades in the silviculture industry.
“We depend on the government and industry working together, and that has not happened,” he said.
Martin disputes the notion there is a shortage of wood.
“There is no shortage of fibre out there for this pulp mill. For the past 20 years, there’s been all sorts of fibre left in the bush, because it was too expensive to truck out,” he said.
Money to access fibre
On Jan. 19, Eby announced $50 million in additional funding for the Forest Enhancement Society of B.C. to support projects that access sources of fibre that would otherwise be too remote haul out, including “low-value or residual fibre” such as wildfire-damaged trees and slash piles left over from industrial logging.
The funding responds to a request from the Pulp and Paper Coalition, which includes many of the major forestry and sector-related companies operating in B.C.
Workers and advocates agree there is a lot of wood wasted during large-scale logging operations, but they worry more damage will be done to ecosystems if burned forests are logged.
“It will increase the logging of primary forest that has had a wildfire,” said Michelle Connelly, an ecologist and the director of the volunteer-run Conservation North. “Ecologists call burned forests complex early seral forests. They provide some of the best wildlife habitat.”
James Steidle has worked most of his adult life in forestry and runs a mobile sawmill in the Prince George area. He said the funding will reduce wildlife and wildlife habitat.
“Logging burns is devastating to the recovery of those burns.”
As for the slash left behind after logging, Steidle blames a lack of penalties and regulations which incent companies to only haul out the best logs and leave the rest behind.
“Giving profitable companies more money to do what they should be required to do is ridiculous,” said Steidle.
Shipping out your livelihood
Trevor Bleich says besides wood waste in the bush that could be utilized, the shipment of raw logs to overseas markets should stop.
Bleich works in the steam unit of the Prince George pulp mill run by Canfor. With 33 years seniority, his job won’t be affected by the pending closure, but many of his friends will be out of work.
Exporting raw logs should never have been allowed, he said.
“It’s part of the reason why we’re at where we’re at – they’re shipping our jobs away.”
“Jobs for trees,” Bleich added, holding a sign with the slogan adopted by forestry workers.
‘We’re out of wood’
“The Prince George timber supply area is the largest timber supply area in the province, and we’re out of harvestable wood,” BC MLA Mike Morris told Carolina de Ryk on CBC’s Daybreak North last week.
Morris has watched the forests, wildlife and wood fibre dwindle during the 50 or so years he’s been hunting and trapping in the region. The Canfor pulp mill is one of several in his Prince George-Mackenzie riding that have shut down in the past few years.
Successive governments have made mistakes on forestry, which has culminated in a situation where the majority of B.C. forests have been harvested or are too young to harvest, said Morris, who served as Parliamentary Secretary of forests under the former BC Liberal government and first wrote a report about it in 2015.
The cause is the ‘sustainable yield strategy’ which has driven harvesting in B.C. for 75 years, and which he called “incomplete” because it doesn’t effectively consider values of the forest beyond fibre.
Forestry is probably the most complex resource file we have in the province, Morris told de Ryk.
Current government policy overlooks impacts on wildlife populations and the hydrological integrity of the landscape and recent announcements react to the symptoms of forestry management problems, instead of root causes, Morris said.
“If we had been practicing sustainable forestry, we would still be able to go out and see an abundant forest and there would still be fibre available for these mills.
“But we have used it up. And the mills are going to have shut down – a lot of them.”
“We have to start looking at things in a different way,” said Martin, who dubbed the upcoming mill closure “a wake-up call.”
Maybe the three other locally owned mills in town hold some clues. Of four remaining mills in Prince George, only Canfor has stopped operations. The other mills haven’t curtailed or shut down lines.
“Canfor operates in a different paradigm,” said Falcon. “When they are making investments, they’ve got all kinds of choices.” From the southern U.S., to Scandinavian countries, to B.C. “In the context of that, they look at B.C. and say, ‘Nope, the value proposition is not here.’ So the money will go elsewhere.”
Local manufacturers operate in another paradigm, Falcon said. Their investment isn’t looking elsewhere. “This is their investment, in this community,” he said.
More community involvement
One thing everyone seems to agree on, is that things are changing and must change further.
“There has to be change coming to the forest sector, everyone knows that,” said Falcon, adding it could be a positive and should include more local control.
For government, opposition and workers – at least part of the solution entails giving communities more say in forestry management.
“It’s important … we’re using [timber supply] to create the highest and best value, especially in terms of returns for local communities,” said Eby.
The 2020 Old Growth Review of forestry management – which the B.C. government committed to adopting in full – recommended giving local communities and stakeholders a bigger role in decisions that affect them.
“There’s an advantage to having community input into forest policy, because those who are closest to the community, and closest to the region, are often better positioned to make good decisions about how to use it,” said Forests Minister Bruce Ralston.
To that end, local forestry workers and advocates are already brainstorming ideas.
The city is surrounded by pine plantations that could be utilized, Steidle said.
“They’re all between 30 and 10 years old. We could go in there and do commercial thinning. We could keep that pulp mill running using that fibre source.”
If another digester machine was added to the Canfor plant, deciduous trees could be turned into pulp. It’s an expensive but potentially viable and sustainable long-term business diversification, he said.
Focussing on pine plantations and deciduous trees would allow manufacturers to use previously logged forests as fibre sources, reducing the impact on primary (never logged) forests.
The market may be in sync as some manufacturers are building product lines reliant on harvesting deciduous trees such as aspen, which grow tall and fast.
Michelle Connelly said industry needs to focus on previously logged forests and leave primary forests and their ecosystems alone.
“I don’t think that would be possible,” said Ralston, but cited the old-growth deferrals as a step in that direction.
‘I grew up here’
Meanwhile, back at the mill, Arnold will work the fibre line until the wood chips disappear. Even though he doesn’t know where he’ll work after March, Arnold says he knows he’ll find something. He’s less confident it’ll be as well-paying as the mill job.
“They’re not going to bring in another industry that pays like this does,” he said. “I know that for sure.”
Arnold and others are hopeful the government funding will help. His family relies solely on his income and forestry is part of his community’s lifeblood.
“I grew up here. My parents were in the forest industry. I’ve been in the forest industry. Everybody I know is in the forest industry,” he said.
For Steidle’s part, the deal is far from done. People need to come together and come up with a plan.
“We should try to fight to keep this mill running and keep our people employed,” Steidle said.
Morris says it’s time for “public discussion” and a round table with a group of professionals to come up with a strategy for how to move the forestry sector forward.
“We’re not going to fix this overnight,” he told CBC Daybreak North. “It’s going to take decades to wait for all the trees to grow back. But we have to consider all the values on the land.”
B.C. will always be a forest province with a forest industry, Morris said.
“But this is the right time to pause, take a look at what we do have left, and how we can move forward in a truly sustainable fashion.”