If there’s a bright spot in the struggling B.C. forest industry, it’s Skeena Sawmills.
Since new investors took over the 59-year-old operation from West Fraser in 2011, they have poured millions into restarting and upgrading Terrace’s only sawmill, fixing old buildings and retooling to handle smaller second-growth timber from the economically marginal forest stands that are left in the region.
They’ve invested more millions into building a pellet plant for biofuel exports. They’re working with the industry-federal agency FPInnovations to use log scanning technology that helps mills detect flaws inside logs to get a viable lumber product out of otherwise uneconomic timber.
They’ve endured shutdowns due to log shortages, high costs and union demands. And now they face a new threat – drastically increased log exports in the North Coast region that siphon off even more of the scarce high-grade timber.
That’s right, despite Premier John Horgan’s endless rant against exporting “raw logs” and jobs, despite mill shutdowns across the province due to jacked-up stumpage taxes on the coast and falling timber supply in the Interior, the export limit has been doubled in the Northwest Interior region around Kitimat, Terrace, Smithers and Hazelton. Similar cabinet orders increase export limits for the vast North Coast, Cassiar and Haida Gwaii regions, apparently so Indigenous communities in the region can make money shipping the best “raw logs” overseas.
Skeena Sawmills president Roger Keery sent a blistering letter to Horgan and Forests Minister Doug Donaldson in late July. He calculated that more than half of the Northwest’s actual log harvest was exported before the NDP government raised the limit from 20 per cent to 40 per cent.
“The largest tenure holder in the area is B.C. Timber Sales [a provincial agency], and with this increase in exportable volumes, the government will in effect be the largest log exporter,” Keery wrote. “We are shocked and disappointed by the changes to the [cabinet orders allowing exports], particularly given the many assurances we received during the review process that government was committed to supporting domestic manufacturing and investment.”
In response to my questions about the letter, the ministry issued a statement that quibbled with its numbers, noting the new quotas exclude export of cedar and cypress, which are now banned from export as logs.
“We have committed verbally and in writing to Skeena that we are monitoring the impact of the [cabinet orders] and if the objectives government outlined are not being achieved, we will revisit the policies,” the ministry stated.
The statement makes no reference to why log export limits have been increased. Ellis Ross, former chief of the Haisla Nation and now B.C. Liberal MLA for Skeena, offered his take.
“What surprises me is after years of complaining and campaigning, the NDP quietly increased log exports in the Northwest,” Ross told me. “I know First Nations depend on log exports for revenues, but the problem is that our local sawmill employs First Nations as well. In choosing to increase log exports, our local sawmill is put in an even more difficult position.”
Horgan has repeatedly stepped in to assist Donaldson with the difficulties of the forests ministry. The much-criticized forest fire recovery programs have been transferred to the public safety ministry. Former B.C. Liberal MLA Blair Lekstrom was hired to extract the province from a secret deal to set aside vast new areas for caribou protection. Delta North MLA Ravi Kahlon was appointed as parliamentary secretary for forests.
Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press Media. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org