Sawmills have either been closed temporarily or for good across B.C. this year, leading to a growing call for assistance from the federal government. (File photo)

Houston counci’s voice added to call for federal forestry aid

Letter highlights crisis affecting B.C.’s lumber industry

The District of Houston has added its voice to a wide-ranging call for federal assistance to response to a number of factors resulting in a large number of permanent and temporary closures of sawmills in B.C.

“The B.C. forest sector is facing significant challenges that are directly impacting our employees, communities and operations across the province,” the District said in an Aug. 13 letter sent to federal cabinet ministers over the signature of Houston mayor Shane Brienen.

Timber shortages resulting in increasing log costs, tariffs imposed by the United States and volatile lumber markets “have created the perfect storm of conditions leading to the current crisis,” the letter stated.

Many mills in B.C. ramped up processing of logs hit by the pine beetle infestation before those logs became commercially unviable but that milling surge is now ending, resulting in a growing shortage of fibre.

Two consecutive years of large wildfires has also affected the available timber supply.

“Under current conditions, many operations are simply uneconomic, which is forcing difficult decisions to close, or curtail, production to rebalance mill capacity with available timber supply,” the letter states.

The letter follows one of similar wording signed earlier by 21 northern B.C. mayors and regional district directors.

That letter was sent before Houston council had a chance to meet and give its blessing to the contents, explained District of Houston mayor Shane Brienen as to why Houston sent its own letter.

Both letters were sent to Amarjeet Sohi, federal Minister of Natural Resources, Chrystia Freeland, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Patricia A. Hajdu, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, and Jeffrey Biggs, Director of Natural Resources Canada.

Beginning late last year and continuing into this spring and early summer, there have been more than 40 temporary shutdowns or announcements of permanent closures of B.C. mills.

That list includes Houston’s Canfor mill which has temporarily closed several times, the last being in June stretching into July.

The company this year also closed its Vavenby mill north of Kamloops for good, and selling its forest tenure there to Interfor.

That resulted in the loss of 172 mill jobs.

In this region, Conifex in Fort St. James, which had closed its mill there temporarily, announced a permanent closure as part of a deal to sell the facility and forest tenure to Hampton Lumber which operates two mills in Burns Lake.

Hampton has said it will build a new mill in Fort St. James but has yet to release detailed plans.

“Managing through this crisis will require a collective effort with industry, government at all levels, communities and employees working together,” said the Houston letter.

In June the BC Liberal Party called on the NDP government to lobby the federal government for employment assistance for laid off workers, to establish a forestry competitiveness committee, to lobby American authorities for a better softwood export deal and to reduce log stumpage fees and reduce the forest sector’s carbon tax and provide money to communities to hire contractors and out-of-work forestry workers to work on project to reduce wildfire risks.

The group letter was signed by the mayors of Burns Lake, Smithers, Granisle, Fraser Lake, Vanderhoof, Prince George, Telkwa, Terrace, Hazelton, Mackenzie, Williams Lake, Pouce Coupe, Queen Charlotte, McBride, Valemount, and Dawson Creek.

Chairs of several regional districts also signed it, as well as Susan Yurkovich, President and Chief Executive Officer of the BC Council of Forest Industries.

B.C. forests minister Doug Donaldson spoke to a forest industry rally in Mackenzie Aug. 22, where all three sawmills are shut down and the pulp mill may soon have to follow.

Donaldson said he has called on the federal government to provide additional worker support, and to “press the gas pedal” on a resolution to the U.S. lumber dispute.

“From what you’ve shown today and in the past, your resiliency, your creativity, your determination, I’m confident Mackenzie has a solid future,” Donaldson told the rally.

– with files from Blair McBride, Aman Pahar and Tom Fletcher.

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