Timber and job loss estimates found in a confidential ministry report are sharpening the debate on whether Victoria should relax forestry rules to ease the impact of the mountain pine beetle.
Houston’s timber-supply area was left out of the report, which focuses on four timber areas with a higher share of pine trees: the Lakes, Prince George, Quesnel and Williams Lake.
It estimates that without opening up protected areas and harvesting low-volume stands, up to 12,000 forestry jobs will disappear from the region.
Changing forestry rules could save up to 3,500 jobs, the report says, but that job-saving potential is much lower in the Lakes and Quesnel areas than in Prince George and Williams Lake.
Mayor Bill Holmberg says he’s so far unimpressed by the rules change proposed by the B.C. government.
“It just seems a little heavy-handed right now,” he said. “And it’s become very political.”
Since the Burns Lake sawmill was destroyed by fire in January, a provincial recovery team led by forestry consultant and former B.C. “beetle boss” Bob Clark has been working on a plan that will secure enough timber for a rebuild.
That plan is not expected until May 1, but MLAs on the recovery team have already visited Houston and other northwest towns to float the main proposals.
Among the more controversial changes are plans to cut into future forestry reserves and relax logging restrictions in view corridors as well as protected wildlife and old-growth areas.
On April 16, Mayor Holmberg joined four other northwest mayors in sending Premier Christy Clark a letter saying they need a more detailed timber inventory before they can support the changes.
“We’re concerned that they’re making a quick decision based on some big pressure coming at them,” Holmberg said.
“I have some concerns about whether the numbers are real.”
Rob Newell, director of the Houston rural area, echoed those concerns.
“They want a quick fix,” he said. “And it’s maybe a little more involved or beyond the capacity of the people who are doing it to come up with solutions that will not only benefit Burns Lake, but avoid invading some of the other communities who will be stuck with the problem long-term.”
Newell said mayors and rural directors in the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako have suggested the province look at other options for an industrial recovery in Burns Lake, including a smaller, community-operated sawmill and plans to make better use of low-grade timber.
Several First Nations in the Burns Lake area have already applied for a licence to cut low-grade timber that can supply existing pellet plants and any biofuels plants that may be built in the future.
“That’s the sort of thing you want to do,” said Mayor Holmberg, “Harvest the wood that’s no good for sawlogs anymore.”