The forest industry has been a critically important sector in the BC economy for over a century, but it has been hit hard. A 30-year trade war with the United States cost our industry billions of dollars. The softwood lumber agreement did bring back certainty to lumber export access and costs, but the Canadian industry paid a very high price for that certainty, and many mills didn’t survive.
In South Okanagan-West Kootenay, the Weyerhaeuser mill in Okanagan Falls closed in 2007, putting over 200 people out of work. The Pope and Talbot mill in Midway closed in 2007 as well, but fortunately has been reopened by Vaagen Brothers, who have invested in new equipment to create a highly efficient mill that uses the smaller logs that are easier to find in today’s wood supply. The Atco Wood Products company in Fruitvale closed its lumber operation at around the same time to concentrate on veneer products for plywood, which are not subject to softwood lumber quotas and tariffs.
Waste wood in all the local mills is usually chipped and sent to the Celgar pulp mill to add a bit to the bottom line. And pulp mills also depend on these inputs of chips; I heard a pulp mill representative during finance committee hearings that pulp mills would be, in his words, “hooped” if Canadian sawmills closed because of inaction on the softwood lumber agreement.
The forest industry would like to see the softwood lumber agreement renewed, but not at any cost. They do not want a new agreement that is more punitive than the last, since it is clear that countervail duties are not warranted at all. The Liberal government promised quick action on this file. They repeatedly said these negotiations were an example of how things go right when the President of the United States is a good friend of the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, they’ve failed to deliver.
But the government can and must do more for the forest industry than just get this softwood agreement. The BC industry has been working hard to build new international markets. They have been working on innovative new wood products: In Penticton, Structurlam has been a world leader in the use of huge glulam beams for beautiful structural supports in large buildings, and combining those beams with crosslam wood panels to allow the construction of very tall buildings without steel and concrete. They’ve recently completed an 18-storey project at the University of British Columbia that used 1.7 million board feet of lumber, the tallest wood building in the world. And of course Structurlam gets their lumber locally at mills such as Kalesnikoff in Castlegar, so the benefits are widespread. If we could support domestic markets through the use of these technologies it could help our industry and partially shield us from the political vagaries south of the border.
Yes, the forest industry faces serious challenges: a future with declining wood supply; a future with more frequent catastrophic forest fires and insect epidemics due to climate change; a future with increased uncertainty around demands for wood products; and a future with rising costs associated with trade disputes with the United States. But we can and must take action to support the forest industry and the communities it serves.