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.