NDP Forestry reforms may bring opportunity to BC Liberals

Written By Geoff Russ

Since its inception, the BC NDP has been the party of labour. The party’s ties to unionized workers have created a crucial working-class voting block. Home to thousands of forestry workers, Vancouver Island’s rural electoral ridings have been New Democrat strongholds for decades.

That loyalty is now being tested as the provincial government shifts towards environmentalist policies that some say will push forestry companies out of B.C., and jobs off the island.

“I’ve been in this business for three, four generations of my family, my kids are also in it,” says Mark Ponting, a forest road-building contractor for major logging licensees on northern Vancouver Island. “All these rural communities, their main economic driver is forestry and we don’t get a lot of support from the government when it comes to these environmental groups.”

In 2021, activists protesting old-growth logging near Port Renfrew staged blockades on logging roads at Fairy Creek. The protests lasted nearly the whole year despite arrests, court injunctions against the blockades, and local elected First Nations chiefs and one hereditary chief asking activists to depart their territory.

Environmental groups say forestry is unsustainable, but Ponting, who owns Ponting Contracting Ltd with his wife Nancy, says he’s worked in areas logged by his great uncles that have since grown back. “We’re talking about a business that’s sustainable, trees grow back,” he says. “Maybe clear cuts don’t look great, but neither does a corn field when it’s cut down. It grows back.”

More than a billion trees were replanted to reforest B.C. between 2018 and 2021, according to the provincial government. Yet, scientists have said some ecosystems are ancient and while trees can grow back, the complexity of the ecosystems cannot be replaced even after hundreds of years. And environmentalists, like the Rainforest Flying Squad, have called for an end to all old-growth logging deemed endangered.

Growing market uncertainty

It isn’t just environmentalists’ opposition to old-growth logging and their perceived influence on government policy that concerns Ponting, who is not an NDP supporter. He’s worried about growing uncertainty for forestry companies and increasing divestment by the industry’s biggest employers in B.C. “We need the revenue that comes from these forest companies that support our schools and hospitals, our housing programs, and First Nations.”

“We need the revenue that comes from these forest companies.”

Mark Ponting

While forestry giants like Interfor and Canfor haven’t fully left B.C., they’ve sold some of their assets, including pulp and saw mills, and invested in new operations in the United States.

According to Business in Vancouver, the forestry industry invested $6.6 billion outside the province in 2021. Don Kayne, chief executive officer of Canfor, one of Canada’s biggest forestry operators, reportedly said the company would not invest further in B.C. because of market uncertainty. Government, economists, and industry representatives have variously estimated provincial government forestry reforms could cause job losses ranging from 4,500 to 18,000.

Municipal Affairs Minister Nathan Cullen points to misunderstanding as one cause of discontent in the forestry industry.

“We’ve seen the forestry sector take huge losses in a model that pushed volume over value,” said Cullen in February when he was still minister of state for lands and natural resource operations. Tens of thousands of people lost their forestry jobs between 2001 and 2017 under successive B.C. Liberal governments, he said.

“With the mass exodus also of investment dollars to other jurisdictions, we are seeking to create a more value than volume forest industry,” said Cullen, who is the NDP MLA for Stikine. “We’ve seen some improvements, but we need to see more, in terms of the many products that we can get out of our forest, than the traditional model from 50 years ago.”

The B.C. government is investing in new technologies such as mass timber and other value-added manufacturing. As well, Cullen said he’s assured forestry workers at risk of losing their livelihoods that the government has their back.

“When those 30,000 jobs were lost by the previous government, there was virtually no support,” he says. “They were just serving pink slips and they were out of the door; that’s not the way the NDP is built.”

The government’s latest budget projects a decline of roughly $700 million in forestry revenues by 2025, due, in part, to a decrease in lumber prices, a reduction in the annual allowable cut, the deferral of old-growth logging, among other factors. The overall revenue impact of old growth deferrals is unknown, according to Finance Minister Selina Robinson. “As that work continues, we’ll certainly see how that impacts in revenues,” Robinson said in a press conference on budget day.

For those affected by the deferrals, the budget allotted $185 million to help businesses and communities create jobs through “diversified economies,” allow people to gain education and training for new jobs, and access up to $75,000 per eligible worker to transition into retirement.

“When those 30,000 jobs were lost by the previous government, there was virtually no support. That’s not the way the NDP is built.”

Nathan Cullen

Back in 2017, Premier John Horgan promised to fight for those remaining forestry jobs both before and after the election that propelled his party to government – thanks to a power-sharing agreement with the BC Greens.

The 2017 election ended 16 years of Liberal dominance, however, forestry workers continued losing jobs during Horgan’s premiership as B.C.’s mills kept closing. Falling timber prices, lower demand from Asian markets, U.S. tariffs, and timber supply shortages were cited as a few of the reasons for the downturn.

Fast-forward to 2022. Discontent may be growing among Vancouver Island’s working communities as the province adopts stronger environmental forestry management policies that will kill even more forestry jobs.

Old growth deferrals

The forestry reforms relate to a 2020 election promise by Horgan to implement all the recommendations of the old growth review conducted by professional foresters Al Gorley and Garry Merkel. Two recommendations from the review currently at the forefront are commitments to government-to-government discussions with First Nations on forestry management and the deferral of logging in old-growth forests at imminent risk of irreversible biodiversity loss.

“We are taking steps to fundamentally transform the way we manage our old-growth forests, lands and resources.”

John Horgan

As a step to fulfill both recommendations, B.C.’s Forests Minister Katrine Conroy appointed an old growth technical advisory panel last year to determine which old forests met the review’s criteria for a potential two-year deferral on logging. The panel included three independent scientists, ecologists Karen Price and Rachel Holt, and registered professional forester Dave Daust; independent forester and old growth review co-author Merkel, from the Tahltan Nation; and Lisa Matthaus, president of West Coast Environmental Law.

Some representatives of industry have taken issue with Matthaus’ history as a forestry policy analyst with the Sierra Club, an environmental organization advocating for restrictions on logging. Others, including the Council of Forest Industries, incorrectly linked Price, Holt, and Daust to the Sierra Club as well. All three have worked independently for the past 25 years, primarily for First Nations and the provincial government, with Holt previously serving as vice-chair of the BC Forest Practices Board.

Conversely – and garnering no push-back from industry – special advisor in the premier’s office, John Allan, is a former lobbyist for the BC Council of Forest Industries and a former deputy minister of forests, lands and natural resource operations.

Duelling data sets

Regardless, in April, 2021, the three scientists published their findings on the state of old growth in B.C. in the peer-reviewed Canadian Journal of Forest Research, indicating only three per cent of the most productive old growth remained standing. Then, last fall, the five-member old growth technical panel recommended 2.6 million hectares of “rare, at-risk and irreplaceable” forests be considered for deferral.

In November, Minister Conroy announced the government would work in partnership with First Nations “to provide clarity” on forests that should be protected, forests that should be managed for ecosystem health, and the areas that could be used for timber harvest.

Horgan said at the time, “We are taking steps to fundamentally transform the way we manage our old-growth forests, lands and resources.”

Almost immediately, the Council of Forest Industries responded: Deferrals would force as many as 20 sawmills to close, and cause job losses for up to 18,000 people. The organization also commissioned its own report which concluded 30 per cent of old growth remained.

“Essentially, the industry report reclassified medium-sized trees as big, and unsurprisingly, found more,” Price said.

In January, when Northern Beat asked Conroy about the duelling data sets and if she stood by the integrity of the panel and the accuracy of its data, she said, “Yes we do. The technical advisory panel members were chosen for their areas of expertise.”

Either way, Conroy’s decision was met with cautious support from environmental groups, along with protest and dismay from the timber harvesting sector.

Workers and forestry company advocates questioned the panel’s findings, the government’s motives, and feared the reduction of old-growth logging would irreparably damage the industry and economy.

The United Steelworkers (USW), which represents thousands of B.C. loggers, criticized the government’s forestry overhauls and encouraged members to write Horgan, asking him to reject policies that hurt forestry workers.

“The NDP has turned its back on the workers, and in-turn, the people of British Columbia.”

Tamara Meggitt

Some Vancouver Islanders, like Ponting, who depend on forestry for their livelihoods, look to the BC Liberals – traditionally the party of business and suburban Lower Mainland voters ­– for political representation.

“The NDP has turned its back on the workers, and in-turn, the people of British Columbia,” said Tamara Meggitt.

Hundreds of forestry workers gather on the legislature lawn in 2020 for a peaceful protest after presenting the B.C. government with a petition for a “working forest.” [Photo Fran Yanor]

Meggitt is married to a log-hauling contractor on Vancouver Island and has organized pro-forestry protests and lobbied MLAs, as have other forestry workers. Echoing Ponting’s concern, Meggitt questions the influence environmentalists are having on government policy.

“Their voices were included in these policy conversations, but yet those most affected by it were shut out,” said Meggitt. “Many, including mayors, have been trying for months to speak with Minister Conroy, and all we get are crickets.”

Vying for the forestry vote

Reduced to just 28 seats in the 87-seat legislature, the BC Liberals need to rebuild a coalition of voters if they want to seriously challenge the NDP in the next election. Winning the forestry workers’ vote could tip the scales in some ridings.

Pundits and analysts have identified retaking former BC Liberal ridings in the Lower Mainland as the key to the party’s comeback, a strategy BC Liberal Party leader Kevin Falcon has acknowledged multiple times. During his leadership acceptance speech, Falcon went further. “We’re going to win back seats we lost… even on Vancouver Island.”

Taylor Verrall worked closely with Falcon’s leadership campaign. “(Falcon) doesn’t want to cede the island to the Greens, or the NDP. He thinks there are ridings we can win,” said Verrall, president of the Liberal riding association for Saanich South, one of the few Vancouver Island ridings that Falcon won in the leadership race.

“You can’t leave 17,000 workers in the lurch and expect there to not be consequences.”

Taylor Verrall

Verrall said the NDP can’t maintain their current base of voters and the Liberals can win on the island if they properly commit to it.

“I think the NDP have built themselves a bit of an unstable coalition. They say one thing to environmentalists, and they say another thing to forestry workers,” said Verrall. “You can’t get away with that indefinitely.”

The lack of confidence in the new NDP base is an opinion shared by pundits across the political spectrum.

“I think one issue that’s going to come to a head in a hurry will be the (forest) industry changes, and the future of the forest industry,” said former NDP strategist and current political consultant Bill Tieleman.

The former communication director for previous New Democrat premier Glen Clark, Tieleman also used to work with the BC Federation of Labour. He said discontent in the forestry industry has left ridings on northern Vancouver Island vulnerable.

“One issue that’s going to come to a head in a hurry will be the (forest) industry changes.”

Bill Tieleman

“I don’t know if they’re ticking time bombs or landmines,” said Tieleman. “But the forest industry changes are definitely causing major consternation, and that is across political lines.”

Recent polling suggests that right now, less than one in five Vancouver Islanders plan to vote for the Liberals in the next provincial election.

Verrall acknowledges the Liberals have previously treated the island as unwinnable, but said the NDP will face consequences for their forestry policies.

“You can’t leave 17,000 workers in the lurch and expect there to not be consequences,” said Verrall.

While Tieleman said the NDP clearly doesn’t want to lose the Island, it’s their success in the Lower Mainland that has given them a commanding majority in the legislature.

“If they lost three seats on the island, would that be a major blow?” said Tieleman.

It might be. Had the Liberals won one more seat in the 2017 provincial election, they would have formed government instead of the NDP and the Greens. Vancouver Island is not the only part of B.C. where forestry is prominent and represented by the New Democrat MLAs.

Tieleman said if the province’s forestry industry falls into further decline under this government, the consequences will be much more severe.

“If they lost three more seats there, and the industry is in turmoil, and companies are not investing in the province, I think that it makes it a much more serious situation for the NDP,” said Tieleman.

Political parties evolve, both in their policies and voters. If the BC NDP are undergoing an evolution right now with their green shift, it will almost certainly come at a cost, and only time will tell who will benefit from that.