A story that ran in both the Prince George Citizen and Victoria Times Colonist, "More mill closures inevitable as BC forest industry crisis deepens", got the basic facts wrong.
I read with concern a recent editorial that featured perspectives from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ resource industry analyst Ben Parfitt. The author’s paraphrasing of and quotes from Mr. Parfitt provide false impressions about how BC’s forests have been managed and the needs of the forest products manufacturing sector.
As per the article, “Parfitt says, the lack of fibre stems from the B.C. government encouraging harvesting of beetle-killed pine and spruce forests after infestations began in 2009, which depleted supplies and created an overabundance of mill capacity that has deepened the crisis.”
To correct Mr. Parfitt, infestations did not begin in 2009. Mountain pine beetle outbreaks in the BC interior’s lodgepole pine forests are a natural phenomenon. In the late 1990’s and early 2000s these outbreaks expanded into an epidemic with the amount of pine being killed each year reaching a peak in 2005. By 2015 the epidemic was well over, with a reported 731 million+ cubic metres or 54% of the BC interior’s merchantable lodgepole pine having been killed.
For context, in the early 2000s the annual interior sawlog harvest averaged 50 million cubic metres – that means the mountain pine beetle killed 15 years’ worth of harvest!
Faced with such a catastrophe, the government had two options. Option 1. Do nothing and let the dead timber decay, and possibly burn in wildfires (adding to global carbon emissions). Option 2. Encourage the industry to use as much of the decaying timber as possible by temporarily increasing the harvest before it rotted. For a time, some of the pine could be made into lumber.
The later scenario was adopted, and a significant volume of dead pine was salvaged, which in turn created jobs and boosted the local rural economies. At the same time, salvage harvesting created the opportunity for the prompt regeneration of these vast dead forests (thereby restarting the land base’s forest carbon absorption engine).
It was well known as early as 2007 that eventually, the rate of harvest and allowable annual cut would have to come down and sawmills would need to adjust or risk closure. There was no definitive timeline, given the variable length of time the dead pine would remain viable for milling (referred to as having a “shelf life” of upwards of 15 to 20 years).
Yes, harvesting, and lumber production rose to levels well above historical averages, but it was done with intention – this was no secret! Following the upswing in harvesting and milling activity, it was always known there would be a return to a sustained yield basis of forest management, but at lower harvest level than that prior to the beetle-epidemic. Some 23 years past the start of the epidemic, much of that pine is no longer suitable for making lumber so sawmills must now adapt or close.
So, it was surprising then that Parfitt said ”in my view we have made mistakes in the past by putting so many eggs into one basket, in this case into the pellet basket”.
The BC pellet industry grew in response to a European Union mandated target to use more than 20-per-cent renewable energy by 2020 which included biomass energy (as in wood pellets). At the same time, the practice in BC was to burn post-harvest residue in slash piles, while sawmills’ sawdust and shaving would go into beehive burners – all of which were the perfect wood supply for making pellets.
It was obvious there was a win-win solution to this increased renewable energy demand in Europe and the surplus of low-quality wood fibre (as dead forests or from increased sawmilling) because of the beetles. Entrepreneurs saw the opportunity, understood their costs of production, secured contracts to purchase the sawdust and shavings and post-harvest roadside debris from local sawmills, got investors, built pellet mills, hired people, and created rural community jobs. How could this possibly have been a mistake?
The article says, “Parfitt said the province would have been better off to give secondary value-added forest companies access to timber supplies the pellet industry is now using”. In addition, Parfitt is quoted as, “Those pellet plants are consuming an immense amount of wood, about five million cubic metres equivalent per year, which in my view has effectively taken wood away from companies that could have added more value and produced more jobs with that wood”
I believe these comments provide a misinformed and false impression of the pellet industry. A recent study conducted by a team of forest professionals and academic experts found that 85% of the BC pellet industry’s fibre supply comes from by-products of sawmills and allied industries, and the remaining 15% is supplied from the forest including low-quality logs not suitable for lumber production and post-harvest residue.
Perhaps there may be an innovator that could use some of this fibre, but not likely at the same scale of the pellet industry. More importantly, what secondary value-added product could be made with sawdust, shavings and logging slash? What products could be made using this fibre that could have added more value and produced more jobs than pellets? Despite the plethora of wood fibre available due to the epidemic, no other industry was developed.
In this situation, pellets become the value-add product of choice because of the costs to produce are less than the value of the product in Europe. The alternative would have been to leave the fibre to rot in the woods or have it burnt, without creating jobs.
One last quote from Parfitt needs addressing, “We are running out of forest…Too much has been cut too quickly and we’re facing that inevitable day of reckoning and if we want to start to move away from the crisis we’re in it’s by getting the industry to start to do very different things from what it is currently doing, and that will take time and investment.”
Harvest rates were not such that “too much has been cut too quickly” – this is an absurd proposition given the decision was to harvest the dead timber before it rotted or burned – there was no option to stave off harvesting the dead timber for later.
Today, the BC interior industry is in the midst of a timber supply fall-down as a result of the beetle and other natural factors. To be clear, however, we are not running out forests overall, rather we have reached limits in some areas on what is economically available to harvest – that is a big difference.
Exacerbating today’s situation is that in many areas across the province there are forests affected by the government’s imposition of new policy initiatives that limit harvesting of non-dead timber (like forests set aside for old-growth management and other non-timber production values).
The article is correct in providing the message that “there’s every reason to believe that we’re going to see further mill closures”, but this is not news to anybody in the industry and mill closures cannot be blamed on the incorrect notions that the industry was overharvesting (dead timber) or the rise of the pellet industry.”