The exploitation forest economy brings dwindling forest-related employment.
IN THE YEAR 2000, there were 101,000 direct jobs in BC’s forest industry: 35,500 in forestry, logging and support services; 47,800 in wood product manufacturing; and 17,700 in pulp/paper manufacturing. By 2019, only 16,100 jobs were left in forestry, logging and support services; 21,000 in wood product manufacturing; and 9,000 in pulp/paper manufacturing. Half of all jobs in the forest industry disappeared in just 20 years.
To understand where BC needs to look to increase forest-related employment, we really need to understand why that large decrease in forest-related jobs occurred, and in which direction the level of employment is likely to go if the business-as-usual course is continued by BC’s government. By “business as usual,” I mean the continued destruction of primary forests by large corporations like Canfor, West Fraser and Western Forest Products. When we mash all three sectors of the industry together, its record of direct employment looks like this:
To begin with, we know that half of all the jobs didn’t disappear as a result of cutting half as much forest. The chart below shows how the actual harvest has changed since 2000. In the first 5 years of that period, the harvest averaged 76 million cubic metres per year. In the last 5 years it averaged 65 million cubic metres. That’s a drop of about 14 percent in the average volume cut per year, yet half of the jobs disappeared.
The logging industry’s view on job loss was captured in a 2017 editorial in a BC Truck Logger’s Association newsletter. It attributed the job loss to three sources: Manufacturing productivity gains accounted for 38 percent; logging productivity gains 27 percent; less manufactured wood products 22 percent; reduced harvest 10 percent; and log exports 4 percent.
Those “productivity gains” were all a result of technological change. For example, many individual fallers with chainsaws were replaced by feller-bunchers. Sawmills became bigger and more automated. Since that direction is likely to continue as artificial intelligence and industrial robots seep into the industry, employment derived from industrial forestry is likely to decline even further as a result of future “productivity gains.”
This machine allows more forest to be cut by less people
The Truck Logger’s Association account of “less manufactured wood products” pointed to the decline in the use of paper. Younger generations use the internet for information and services that their grandparents found in telephone books and newspapers. That change will accelerate as younger people increasingly make choices informed by the need to respond to climate change. A clear sign that this trend is continuing is the recently announced permanent closure of the paper mill at Powell River, which began operations in 1912.
Another change that will continue to have a profound impact on the number of jobs in logging is the shrinking availability of primary forest. Chris Harvey, a forester and spokesperson for the Teal Jones Group, noted in 2016 that “old growth is an absolutely essential part for us to harvest. We can’t be economically viable if we log 100 percent second growth. And this is true for other companies as well.”
While some companies don’t want to let go of cutting primary forest, others are even more primitive in their outlook about what’s possible. In 2020, a spokesperson for Mosaic, the joint management company for both Island Timberlands and TimberWest, stated that without being able to export raws logs, its operations would not be economically viable.
If we take these companies at their word, logging is only viable if it can continue to accelerate climate change, destroy ancient forested ecosystems, and damage our economy. These harms will become increasingly indefensible as the planet gets hotter and forest employment dwindles further.
The movement to protect the remaining primary forest in BC is getting stronger, not weaker, and has a solid scientific underpinning that links loss of primary forest to biodiversity collapse and climate change. Why would the tiny number of jobs remaining in the primary-forest-dependent logging industry outweigh the urgent need to protect our life support systems? By 2019, jobs related to this destruction amounted to only 1.8 percent of BC’s total workforce.
Whether an industry with nothing to harvest but second-growth trees would be economically viable is unknown, but significantly smaller trees will mean a higher degree of mechanical harvesting will be possible, likely reducing employment further. The lumber from younger, smaller-diameter trees with a higher percentage of sapwood will be less valuable as a construction material, thus lowering demand for BC wood products.
Moreover, it is now clear that the growth and yield of second-growth plantations has not measured up to the predictions of BC’s timber supply analysts. All over BC, timber supply is falling. Predictions made in 2004 now appear to have been far too optimistic.
A wildly optimistic timber supply forecast made in the 2004 State of the Forests report. Using faulty growth and yield models, the ministry of forests predicted timber supply in 2020 would be about 50 percent higher than it has turned out to be. In 2004, the ministry was expecting the Mountain Pine Beetle to have a greater impact on timber supply than it actually has had, so the beetle was not the cause of the optimism bias.
All of these factors point toward continued falling employment in the logging-milling industry.
The fall-down in pulp and paper production in BC means the largest market for the most voluminous product of BC logging—wood chips and sawdust—is collapsing. The only alternative, so far, for getting rid of all that low value waste is to compress it into pellets and send it overseas where it is burned for heat, a process that creates more carbon emissions per unit of thermal energy produced than coal does.
The shear backwardness of BC’s forest industry is unlikely to attract young people looking for long, meaningful careers. Pellet-making is more likely to be seen as a dirtier job than mining coal than greenwashed “bioenergy.” Indeed, the forest industry, for all its attempted greenwashing, is having difficulty filling available jobs. In Ontario, one forestry company has begun experimenting with remote-controlled logging trucks due to the shortage of drivers.
It seems likely, then, that the halving of employment over the past 20 years will continue through the next 20 years. Given the industry’s already small contribution to overall employment in BC, what political leverage will 25,000 workers have? Industry employment has already reached such a diminished state that, given the huge public subsidization of the industry, it would be less costly for BC taxpayers to provide employment supports as a way of transitioning current forestry workers into less subsidized employment. The Province, through its Bridge to Retirement program, has already headed in that direction.
A far more appropriate kind of forest-related job will emerge, one far more suited to getting through the climate emergency and reversing the biodiversity collapse. What will be needed in the future is expertise and a workforce for protecting forests from fire, disease and insect infestations. Forests are already more valuable standing than as lumber, sawdust and forest fire fuel. Our hired bean-counters just aren’t thinking clearly.
While engineers elsewhere try to design and build expensive equipment for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, BC already has the “equipment” to do that: Its remaining primary and mature second-growth forests. Those irreplaceable assets just need to better protected.
Restoring and regenerating BC’s forests will also restore their hydrological function of cleaning and cooling water and controlling its flow over the land. In the future, how much will it be worth to former logging-dependent communities to feel safe again from the flooding and forest fires they once experienced that were attributable to over-exploitation of nearby forests?
BC will always need some forest products, and there will be employment generated by that need. But as reconciliation with First Nations advances and final treaties are completed, the control of forests should go back to Indigenous people. The courts have already decided that. British Columbians would be in a better place—ethically, economically and ecologically—if Indigenous leaders made the decisions about how many jobs the forests could provide and who gets to fill them.