By the end of April, a provincial task force is expected to answer a big question for the Highway 16 corridor—can the province secure enough timber to justify what will likely be a $100-million rebuild of the Burns Lake sawmill?
“We’re not there yet, but I’m optimistic,” said John Rustad, BC Liberal MLA for Nechako-Lakes.
Speaking Wednesday to the Houston Chamber of Commerce, Rustad said the challenge is how badly the pine beetle has hit the Lakes timber supply area.
In five years, its annual cut could fall to a quarter of what it was—from two million to 500,000 cubic metres of timber.
“This impact is coming to all of our communities,” Rustad said.
“What we do here, for Burns Lake, could be a blueprint for resolving many of the issues.”
But that blueprint is already coming under scrutiny.
Mayor Bill Holmberg questioned some of the yield numbers the province is projecting, and said he is concerned about the long-term impact of the plan.
“I just see some knee-jerk reactions coming up here, and I don’t know if they’re well thought out,” he said.
As reported March 28, the task force may relax logging restrictions in scenic areas, old-growth stands and the winter ranges of some animals, such as mule deer.
On that issue, Councillor Jonathan Van Barneveld asked, “If we’re loosening the restraints on visuals or wildlife habitat or winter range, are we not tying our hands for developing other opportunities?”
Rustad said that ultimately that question leads to a choice between $30 to $35 per hour forestry jobs and $10 per hour jobs in tourism.
“I’d rather have the industrial land base and try to expand tourism at the same time,” he said, noting that the province will continue to restrict logging in key scenic areas and the habitats of more threatened species, such as caribou and grizzly bears.
“We’re not talking about stripping off all the constraints,” he said.
Aside from relaxing some logging restrictions, Rustad said the task force is also looking at logging in lower-yield stands, cutting into some of the future timber reserve, and awarding logging contracts that encourage companies to harvest more intensively.
In parts of B.C., Rustad said companies that have been allowed a stronger role in managing their own cut blocks have been able to harvest up to 50 per cent more timber.
Mayor Holmberg questioned whether anyone could get the same results in the Lakes area, where beetle-kill is already a major problem.
“If you look look at the wood on the south side of the TSA, the mills don’t even want it,” he said.
Holmberg also asked why the province is aiming for a rebuild of the old Babine Forest Products mill, which handled 1.1 million cubic metres of wood each year, when a mill that handles 500,000 cubic metres is easier to sustain?
On intensive logging, Rustad said there are still green stands where it might work in the Lakes, but said the province won’t rely on that to make its decision.
As for the scope of a new Babine Forest Products, Rustad said that with some of B.C.’s hungriest mills in Houston and Vanderhoof, a mill handling just 500,000 cubic metres wouldn’t be able to compete on timber contracts.
“You’re going to get gobbled up,” he said.
A rebuilt mill will likely handle between 800,000 and 1 million cubic metres, he said, noting that a new and more efficient mill will employ between 180 and 190 rather than 250 workers.
Whatever the provincial task force finally decides, Rustad said the stakes are high.
When a Jan. 20 fire killed two men and destroyed the Babine Forest Products sawmill, it not only cost 250 direct jobs, but also made it tough for the nearby Dekker Lake mill keep running.
And while managers at Burns Lake’s Pinnacle Pellet plant say they can continue without a rebuild, it will certainly dash their expansion plans.
Rustad said he’s heard many people question whether the province should be shifting the Lakes timber supply at all, but says they don’t understand the consequences.
“I’m not willing to say to a community that you’re going to become a logging camp,” he said.
“I’m going to do everything I can to make sure we have enough fibre to feed our primary industries.”