Vaughn Palmer: B.C. NDP seems out of touch with forestry woes

Opinion: Canfor cancels investment, as NDP efforts to improve access to fibre haven’t succeeded

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VICTORIA — Forests Minister Bruce Ralston had to scramble for excuses this week when Canfor suspended its plan to build a $200 million state-of-the-art sawmill in Houston in northwestern B.C.

Just last year, Ralston had trumpeted the project as evidence of renewed confidence in the provincial economy in general and the forest sector in particular.

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Now he blamed the suspension — and Canfor’s related closure of a sawmill in Bear Lake and curtailment of production at its pulp mill in Prince George — on a corporate decision-making, driven by declining markets for forest products.

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“We are disappointed by the business decision made by Canfor today,” said Ralston in a news release Thursday. “We will be there to support the workers’ families and communities impacted by this corporate decision. Workers shouldn’t bear the brunt of commodity cycles as they have been forced to for years.”

The forest minister didn’t even acknowledge the company’s stated reason for suspending plans for one mill, closing a second and reducing operations at a third.

Canfor CEO Don Kayne blamed a shortage of timber and fibre, compounded by NDP government-imposed policies and regulations.

His news release drew attention to the yawning gap between the allowable cut approved by the chief forester and the amount of timber actually harvested.

“The ability to reliably access enough economic timber to run our manufacturing facilities is critical for our business,” said Kayne in a news release Thursday.

“Unfortunately, while our province has a sufficient supply of timber available for harvest, the actual harvest level has declined dramatically. In 2023, the actual harvest was 42 per cent lower than the allowable cut, a level not seen since the 1960s.”

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The decline was partly the result of the beetle infestation and wildfires, acknowledged Kayne.

“It is also the result of the cumulative impact of policy changes and increased regulatory complexity. These choices and changes have hampered our ability to consistently access enough economic fibre to support our manufacturing facilities and forced the closure or curtailment of many forest sector operations.”

Looking ahead — perhaps with an eye on the opinion polls — the Canfor CEO saw too many uncertainties.

“With the policy and regulatory landscape in B.C. continuing to shift, it’s difficult to predict the operating conditions that we will face going forward,” said Kayne.

“As such, we have made the difficult decision to suspend our plan to build a new state-of-the-art sawmill in Houston, as we are not confident that an investment of this magnitude can be successful at this time.”

The combined impact of Canfor’s decisions is significant.

The Bear Lake sawmill closure and the reduced operations at the pulp mill in Prince George together mean the loss of 400 jobs. The new mill in Houston was to employ 200 people.

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“These decisions are heartbreaking for our company that has been proudly headquartered in B.C. for more than 85 years,” said Kayne.

The forests minister also acknowledged the company’s 85-year record when he praised last year’s decision to proceed with the Houston mill.

“Canfor has been headquartered in B.C. for 85 years, and their decision underscores their commitment to B.C. and to the people of Houston,” Ralston said Sept. 14. “Good news, not only for people in the community, but also for forestry workers, labour and industry throughout the province.”

Good news for the NDP government, too.

“Our government is committed to ensuring that forestry remains a strong and sustainable industry in B.C., said Ralston. “I look forward to seeing all that Canfor and the community of Houston can achieve with this exciting new investment.”

Still, the New Democrats understood the industry was beset by concerns about access to fibre for mills of every kind.

Responding at the outset of this year, Premier David Eby appointed Andrew Mercier as the new minister of state for sustainable forestry innovation.

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“Minister Mercier will be a key partner in government to help address the urgent demand for timber supply from industry, while working to ensure that wood products are value added to help create and protect jobs in the forestry sector,” said Eby.

But as with many Eby initiatives — public safety, affordable housing, access to a family doctor — actual results differed from the ambitions in his news release.

Canfor had indicated last September that it was ready to get going on the Houston mill.

“Work will begin immediately on detailed project engineering and permitting requirements. Vendor and equipment selection will be finalized in early 2024 with demolition and site preparation scheduled for the spring.”

However come this spring, the company had yet to begin dismantling the old mill on the Houston site to make way for the new. As Rod Link reported in a story in the Northern View online, this week’s suspension ended several months of speculation about when or whether the company would go ahead.

Were the New Democrats paying attention to what was happening with the project since they took that victory lap last September?

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This week’s response, blaming the suspension on market conditions, suggests they were unaware of Canfor’s reasons for putting the $200 million investment on hold.

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