BC’s largest forest companies are investing beyond our borders.
AN ALL TOO FAMILIAR from the forest industry continues to paint environmentalists and the protection of irreplaceable forests as a major driver of current and future job losses in the forest sector. Forestry workers and communities have every right to be upset—we’ve lost nearly 50,000 jobs in the forest sector since 2000. But the problem is not environmental protection, it’s corporate investment, automation, poor management decisions and BC’s largest forest companies no longer being as invested in our communities as they once were.
Over the last twenty years, BC’s largest forestry companies have used their record breaking made-in-BC profits to invest in mills in the United States and Europe while closing BC mills.
Since 2005, 35 sawmills in BC’s interior and nine on the coast have permanently shuttered.
Canfor, West Fraser, Interfor, Tolko, and Teal Jones alone have invested more than $7.1 billion USD in mills and forest operations in the US and Europe while closing mills and leaving whole communities like Canal Flats, Quesnel, Clearwater, Mackenzie to reinvent themselves in order to survive.
West Fraser has invested $4.5 billion USD in mills and operations located primarily in the U.S. south and the UK since 2000. Canfor has invested $1.3 billion in the southern U.S. and Europe since 2005. Interfor has invested approximately $863 million USD in mills and operations in the U.S. south since its first investment in 2013. Vernon based Tolko Industries has invested $400 million USD since 2018. Teal Jones has only disclosed one of their three investments for $31.75 million USD since 2004.
New Canfor mill in Louisiana
As large forest corporations cry wolf over the last of our ancient forests it’s hard to take them seriously as they have a long history of leaving behind our communities and have cared far more about the well-being of shareholders over the well-being of our forests and our communities.
Six years ago, Canfor announced it was closing its Canal Flats sawmill in Southeast BC According to the local Steel Workers Union, 170 jobs were lost that year. The community of Canal Flats was devastated by the loss. Less than three weeks after the Canal Flats closure announcement, Canfor purchased Anthony Forest Products in Arkansas for $93.5 million USD.
The pattern continued in 2020 when Canfor invested $110 million USD in the purchase of a sawmill in South Carolina less than one month after announcing the closure of its Isle Pierre sawmill near Prince George, leaving nearly 100 employees in sawdust.
What we know is that BC can’t compete with places like Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina where trees on fast growing plantation forests on private lands are logged every 20 to 40 years. Nor should British Columbia strive to manage our forests like that.
“The future of BC’s forest sector should be shaped by the communities, Indigenous Nations and landscapes
that make British Columbia so incredible.”
Our communities need to be at the forefront of the decisions that we make about our forests. For far too long those decisions have been made for corporations who have treated BC as a “fibre basket”—a low value producer of cheap “2 by 4” lumber, and who have no trouble leaving behind forest dependent communities when profits are meagre, and more money can be made in another jurisdiction.
We must shift the paradigm in how we do forestry in this province to urgently address the climate and biodiversity crisis that BC’s forest management has served to exacerbate.
Over the past decade, our forests have turned from a carbon sink to a carbon emitter due to fire and mismanagement. Sensitive species like caribou, fisher and some species of salmon are teetering on the brink of extinction in a great part due to the way we log and how much we log.
BC’s forest management must prioritize the health of water, wildlife, cultural values and local communities while ensuring that local employment is sustained. It’s time to move beyond our timber-centric thinking and value our globally important forests for more than just their timber.
The future of BC’s forest sector should be shaped by the communities, Indigenous Nations and landscapes that make British Columbia so incredible.
Eddie Petryshen lives in Kimberley in ?amak?is Ktunaxa and is a Conservation Specialist for Wildsight, recognized as a leader in large-scale conservation, sustainable community initiatives and environmental education since 1987.
News of old-growth deferrals has set the press on fire with fears of catastrophic job losses.
The sawmill at Clear Lake south of Prince George, closed in 2011, once supported about 200 workers
BESIDES THE FACT we will suffer catastrophic job losses one way or the other, when the rapidly dwindling accessible old-growth is extirpated, missing from this discussion is the fact many communities have already suffered tremendously. But the perpetrator wasn’t conservation. It was “progress,” or in other words, unrestrained capitalism.
Between 1997 and 2017 we lost around 50,000 forestry jobs, almost half the entire forestry work force in this province. Whole communities were scattered to the wind overnight. Conservation had nothing to do with these job losses. Consolidation of mills, automation, and “investment” did.
Take Clear Lake, for example, a small mill south of Prince George where I worked as a teenager that produced 120,000 board feet a shift with around 200 workers. That’s around 10 logging truck loads a shift to employ 200 people. It was the most inefficient mill in BC, with green chains, human lumber graders, and community spirit. It never lost money. It was shut down in 2010 and production shifted to Canfor’s super mill at Bear Lake, a place that produces 10 times the lumber (1.2 million board feet a shift) with probably half the workforce.
In other words, we lost a mill that provided 20 times more jobs per unit of public timber cut compared to the heavily capitalized, heavily automated mills that remained open. This story has been replicated across the province. Combined with bigger equipment, trucks with eight and even nine axles compared to the old five axle trucks, the huge processors, the feller bunchers, industry has shed thousands of good paying, satisfying bush jobs due to “investment.”
We hear a lot about how important “investment” is in the forest industry. We hear about companies like Canfor taking their “investment” to other jurisdictions as if this is a mortal threat to our forests and our forest workers. The reality is, “investment” has been the primary cause of job losses. Sawmilling is fundamentally primitive. The more technology invested, the fewer workers there are. None of this is necessary.
The value is in the public timber.
You can make money hauling logs out of the bush with a four-wheeler, a $400 chainsaw, and cutting it on a $30,000 woodmizer and planing it on a $20,000 four-sided logosol planer. We have invested our way out of a sustainable industry that once provided enormous public and social benefits and instead chews through our forests at an unbelievable pace with a fraction of the previous work-force to maximize profits for global shareholders while leaving communities decimated in their wake.
Smaller mills cutting only what BC needs for its own use could employ more people than the super mills built for the export market
As a society we need to ask ourselves why putting 50,000 people out of work to maximize corporate profits was apparently acceptable, while saving the last of our old growth for far fewer job losses is not. Furthermore, we don’t even need to lose jobs. We need to go back to small mills and more diverse ownership, break up the monopsonies and monopolies that we no doubt suffer under, and reclaim some of those 50,000 jobs that were lost so the big companies could earn record profits.
The fact we cared nothing for those 50,000 lost jobs, and are red-faced in anger at the fact the head offices can’t decimate the last of our productive old growth, speaks to a fundamental intellectual and moral impoverishment amongst us. We ought to be red-faced in shame for not making a bigger stink about the gutting of our communities and the ripping off of public resources by out-of-control capitalism over the past 20 years, on the mistaken premise that that’s just “progress.” I suggest we take a good hard look at where progress has gotten us: denuded landscapes, red-listed species, shut down mills, ghost towns, and ever more unequal wealth distribution.
James Steidle grew up south of Prince George in the bush and worked as a tree planter for 3 years and in Clear Lake Sawmills for 4 years. He currently runs a woodworking company and works with aspen wherever he can. He is a founder of Stop the Spray B.C.
James Steidle grew up south of Prince George in the bush and worked as a treeplanter for 3 years and in Clear Lake Sawmills for 4 years. He currently runs a woodworking company and works with aspen wherever he can. He is a founder of Stop the Spray B.C.
OVER THE PAST THREE DECADES, forest sector employment has decreased by about half, from about 100,000 jobs in 1991-1999 to about 50,000 in 2010-2018.1 Various factors have been proposed as responsible for this loss including mechanisation, loss of accessible fibre, increased wildfire and beetle disturbance, increased raw log export, increased area in protection, etc. It’s possible to use federal statistics to tease apart some of these factors. If increased protection, increased natural disturbance or loss of accessible timber were responsible for most of the job loss, the volume and/or area harvested would decrease. However, if increased mechanisation and/or raw log export were responsible, the jobs would decrease while volume and area harvested remained stable (i.e., jobs per unit volume would decrease).
Although the volume harvested per year has fluctuated somewhat (with a drop around the 2008-2009 recession), volume per decade has remained relatively constant at about 70 million cubic metres over the past three decades. Volume harvested has decreased somewhat in the last decade, about 10% from the 1990s and 2000s, partly due to decreased cut post-beetle and partly due to regional shortages of accessible, merchantable fibre (and subsequent mill closures). This small drop contrasts strongly with the larger drop in the number of jobs per volume. The number of jobs per unit volume harvested has dropped from an average of 1.3 jobs per thousand cubic metres in the 1990s to three quarters of a job per thousand cubic metres from 2010-2018 (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Annual jobs per thousand cubic metres of wood harvested. Calculated based on data available from management and employment pages in https://cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/statsprofile/employment/BC
This decline in jobs per unit volume suggests that mechanisation, and perhaps raw log exports, are responsible for most of the loss rather than decreased area available for harvest due to protection, loss of fibre or increased disturbance (which would reduce volume harvested not jobs per volume).
Properly quantifying the effects of mechanisation and log exports on job loss requires accounting for the effects of volume harvested. Using the jobs/cubic metre average for the 1990s as a baseline (1.3 jobs per thousand cubic metres) and projecting expected jobs forward from 2000 to 2018 based on the volume harvested per year estimates that 25,000 jobs were lost to mechanisation and perhaps raw log export by the 2000s and 38,000 jobs were lost by the 2010s (lost jobs calculated as the average difference between projected jobs and actual jobs over the decade in Figure 2).
Figure 2. Jobs projected based on annual volume harvested and jobs per cubic metre values (1.3 jobs/thousand cubic metres 1990s baseline) compared to actual jobs. The blue line represents the maximum jobs in the past three decades.
From a high of about 100,000 jobs, decreased volume was only responsible for a large part of decreased jobs during the 2008-2009 recession (compare the dotted line to the blue horizontal line); a decrease in jobs per unit volume was responsible for most of the job loss. This change was likely due primarily to increased efficiency in mills and increased mechanisation of harvest. Analyses done elsewhere suggest an annual loss of 3,600 jobs due to raw log export.2
Increased natural disturbance may reduce volume available for harvest, contributing to job loss. Natural disturbances are salvaged where possible. The increased volume harvested around 2005 was due to uplifts in AACs for mountain pine beetle salvage.
Wildfires burned 3.5 million hectares of forest in the past decade, about half in the THLB. While much of the merchantable THLB may be salvaged, some will be inaccessible and some volume will be lost to char. If a quarter of disturbed THLB area cannot be salvaged, for example, fires will remove about 21,000 hectares of harvestable timber per year based on trends over the last decade. Assuming the current jobs per hectare (0.75 jobs per cubic metre) and stocking of 350 cubic metres per hectare, wildfires can be inferred to be responsible for a loss of 5,500 jobs each year.
1 Forestry and logging, pulp and paper manufacturing, wood product manufacturing and support activities for forestry; https://cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/statsprofile/employment/BC. Survey of employment, payrolls and hours. Data are publicly available from 1991 – 2018 for most factors.
SAFT is the Science Alliance for Forestry Transformation and includes