B.C.’s forest industry is having another bad week, after Canfor Corp. announced the immediate closure of its Mackenzie sawmill north of Prince George, and the permanent reduction from two shifts to one at its Isle Pierre mill west of the city, effective in September.
It’s the latest of a long string of permanent or temporary lumber production curtailments announced this year for B.C. Interior mills. Canfor attributes the layoff at Isle Pierre to timber reduction at the centre of the mountain pine beetle recovery zone. Mackenzie is “due to the high cost of fibre, poor lumber markets and challenging operating conditions that have combined to make the mill uneconomic under these conditions.”
This is the backdrop for Forest Minister Doug Donaldson’s latest initiative, the launch of an “Interior forest sector renewal” project. This consists of a website to gather public input, while ministry staff meet privately with local government and Indigenous leaders in Interior communities, including those hurting the worst.
As with the series of industry-led meetings urged by Premier John Horgan in January, the key purpose here is to further redistribute Crown forest cutting rights. Horgan and Donaldson are locked into the NDP political frame that big forest companies are the problem, and that nothing has been done about their grip on the people’s resource.
The Gordon Campbell government bought back 20 per cent of timber licences to diversify the industry in smaller tenures and community forests, and then worked through more than 100 timber assignments with Indigenous communities. This effort faded away during the Christy Clark years, but now it’s back with a vengeance.
Similar to the Horgan government’s earlier engagement with salmon farm operators, I suspect these private meetings boil down to a series of ultimatums to big forest licence holders. The B.C. NDP wants to be seen as implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and this is how they aim to do it.
“Almost every day when we’re sitting in the legislature I have First Nations come into my office to express interest in more volume and getting involved in forestry,” Donaldson told me last week. “That diversity of tenure holders is something we think will be important to the vitality of the industry.”
Legislation passed this spring requires what’s called a “public interest” test for any transfer of cutting rights. Donaldson described the proposed sale of Canfor’s licence to Interfor to keep its historic Adams Lake sawmill going as the $60 million sale of an “artificial asset.”
I asked Donaldson if this kind of transaction is a thing of the past. He allowed that while ministry staff have kept in touch with Interfor and Canfor, he’s met with the mayor of Clearwater and leadership of the Simpcw First Nation. Chief Shelly Loring has demanded a role in forest management, and Donaldson concurs.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the proposal on my desk, and yes, we want to see diversity of tenure to create more opportunities,” Donaldson said.
Setting aside the useless political rhetoric around this (“You did nothing!” “No, you’re doing nothing!”), an optimist could say a multi-decade process of Crown forest reform and development of new markets such as mass timber is continuing.
My concern now is that the NDP is interpreting its minority government as a one-term window for socialist revolution, like the Dave Barrett government of the 1970s. I hope I’m wrong.
Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press Media. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org