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MLAs from Prince George, B.C.'s northern interior call for action in uncertain forestry future

B.C. legislature's fall session discussed industry's current downfall
(via Glacier Media)

It appears that barely a day goes by in B.C. without an announcement about layoffs, temporary closures or permanent mill shutdowns in the struggling forest industry.

Most recently, Canfor said it was curtailing all of its sawmills in the province for the final two weeks of December, including its Prince George, Isle Pierre and Polar (Bear Lake) locations, from Dec. 23, 2019 to Jan. 3, 2020.

As a result, thousands of workers, their families and many communities have been left facing uncertain futures.

"When will the premier and his government start paying attention and do something?" asked Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond, also the Liberals' co-finance critic, during the fall session of the B.C. legislature ending Thursday (Nov. 28).

Bond's riding, in particular, is facing about 50 impending layoffs at a mill and the shutdowns are causing widespread economic and social pains, says B.C. Liberal forestry critic John Rustad.

"It's unfathomable to think of the carnage that's already happened, let alone what will happen this winter," the Nechako Lakes MLA said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press. "It's going to be a very bleak winter."

Rustad said on a visit to Campbell River a car dealer told him he repossessed 10 vehicles from out-of-work forestry workers.

One other person of the 2,000 people out of work indefinitely on the Island asked the same care dealer if he could keep his vehicle until Christmas and sold them a load of firewood to make a payment, Rustad said.

Among those affected are also about 175 workers at a mill owned by Tolko Industries in Kelowna where the plant will close permanently on Jan. 8, while Canfor's decision to permanently close its mill in Vavenby, north of Kamloops, resulted in the loss of 172 jobs in the community of about 700 people.

"Basically, I would say 80 per cent or more of the coastal forest sector is down," Rustad said. "It's not good. It's really, really tough."

Finance Ministry budget numbers show forest revenues are down 11 per cent this year and projected harvest volumes of 46 million cubic metres are the lowest in years.

The NDP government faced daily calls for action from the Liberals last week, including one from Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett.

The B.C. Liberals' rural development critic wants the orange party to grant payment relief to Sigurdson Forest Products, which owes the province $4.6 million in stumpage fees.

She said the Williams Lake company is committed to paying the fees, but needs a temporary stay on the payments to save up to 200 jobs.

"SFP is a viable company and wants to continue operations," said president Brian Sigurdson in a letter to Finance Minister Carole James, Premier John Horgan and Forests Minister Doug Donaldson.

"We want to continue to support all of our employees and our local businesses and community."

Donaldson said the request for relief is before the Ministry of Finance, but he added stumpage rates in the B.C. Interior dropped by 12 per cent in October and 24 per cent on the coast.

He also said political intervention into the stumpage system could make matters worse for B.C. companies because it could result in a trade challenge from forest producers in the United States. B.C. lumber exports to the U.S. already face tariffs of about 20 per cent.

Low timber prices and the large-scale destruction of Crown harvest zones during the pine beetle epidemic and two successive record wildfire seasons have hurt the industry, Donaldson said.

"We understand the impact the global downturn is having on the economies of the Interior and we're determined to address it," he said in the legislature.

He said the province has taken steps to drive more logs to domestic production and for use in value-added products.

- with files from The Canadian Press


Kyle  Balzer

About the Author: Kyle Balzer

Kyle Balzer graduated with distinction from BCIT's Broadcast & Online Journalism program in 2016. Since moving to Prince George, he has covered a variety of stories from education & Indigenous relations, to community interests & sports.
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