Aug 21, 2019 — Discussion around forestry held at the community centre in Fort St. James. (From left: Ross Hamilton from the KDL group, Riley Willick representing the district’s chamber of commerce and Tom Greenaway, Electoral Area C Director) (Aman Parhar photo)

Forestry discussion held in Fort St. James

John Rustad, Nechako Lakes MLA engaged interested residents and organizations in an open discussion around forestry

Nechako Lakes MLA held a forestry discussion last week in Fort St. James to interact with people affected by the sale of the Conifex sawmill to Hampton Lumber. During the interaction people expressed probable solutions and concerns about B.C.’s forest industry.

The meeting led by John Rustad, MLA Nechako Lakes had 10 participants including mayor Bev Playfair, chief administrative officer Melany Helmer, Riley Willick, representing the chamber of commerce, economic development officer for the district David Schroeter, regional district of bulkley-nechako representative Tom Greenaway, Ross Hamilton from the KDL group and Harry Hooks, a resident of the community.

Rustad started the meeting by saying that some of the reasons why forestry in B.C. is facing such a hard time is because the province is heavily dependent on exports and are the highest cost producers in North America.

He said because of the high lumber prices, companies have to figure out how to reduce prices and hence are curtailing.

Rustad questioned the difference in stumpage cost between B.C. and Alberta.

“Stumpage difference between B.C. and Alberta is $50 per cubic metre. Out of the $50 differential, $30 is stumpage and $20 is government policy which includes health tax, carbon tax, First Nations involvement and others,” Rustad said.

Currently, stumpage is set once a year with quarterly updates, Rustad said, adding Alberta does monthly adjustments and hence is more reflective of the current market conditions.

Meanwhile, Harry Hook, resident of Fort St. James said, “we need to think outside the box.”

Even though the idea to get production down and to simultaneously become more efficient may be a good idea, Hook said he doesn’t believe it to be the solution.

“We have some of the best loggers in the world, we have great timber. We have a great facility. First of, no logs should leave the community,” he said.

He spoke about diversifying communities to be multiple resource towns rather than being dependent on a single industry.

“We have potential for mining projects and it may not be the most popular opinion right now, but the nice thing about mines is that they sustain communities. We are a mineral rich area. We need to fast track mines and not throw a lot of hurdles in front of it,” Hook said.

Another industry that the district could expand on is agriculture. Fort St. James has potential to be an agricultural community but that resource has been underutilized, he said.

“By diversifying we could attract more people to the community. Not saying we want to be the size of Prince George, but I see a lot of empty windows and empty lots. There was a lot more in this town 50 years ago than there is now,” Hook said.

As for stumpage, he believes the system is flawed and not broken. “It just doesn’t react quick enough. I don’t think its structured to represent cost effectively.”

Mayor Playfair reiterated her stance that no more timber should be leaving the community.

She said the provincial government has been accommodating to their requests for meetings. However, no provincial or federal funding has been provided to the community that has been facing a financial crisis since mid-July, she said.

“We need provincial and federal funding. Winter is coming and we could start with wildfire mitigation programs. We could upgrade pathways in the community. We could do a lot with the residents who are unemployed, but we need money for that,” Playfair added.

She said Bill 22 will be a saviour to smaller communities that are affected by such sales. Under Bill 22, any transfer or sale of tenure will need ministerial approval.

David Schroeter, economic development officer for the district said the sale has had a huge impact to businesses and employees.

“A lot of people are having an incredibly difficult time. Chamber of commerce and businesses have seen that decrease in their bottom line.”

“We had a restaurant shut down. Places like that affect the vibrancy of a community,” he said.

Rustad asked Schroter if he has heard about any increases in demand for social services. Schroeter said there has been an uptake at the food bank. They are operating one extra day and WorkBC is significantly busier since the curtailments took place, he said.

Melany Helmer, chief administrative officer for the district said apart from solving the present issues, the bigger picture needs to be looked at.

“Putting people to work on other things is probably a good band-aid, but we need to also solve the bigger picture. So the next time we face this, we are in a better position to handle it and are globally competitive.”

Rustad said the government could set up a cabinet committee to address issues around fibre, First Nations, workers and others affected.

Another discussion was around land base and tenure agreements.

Electoral Area C director Tom Greenaway said there needs to be more local community control on land base. “Some of that wood should be taken from the companies and given to community groups,” he said.

Rustad said companies could better utilize logs left on the forest floor and should be a government mandate. But the problem with other products is their cost structure, he said.

Hook said the forestry issue will be resolved in due time but when that good change comes, the community should gear up to diversify.

“At this point if you look at your 30-year plan — our hospital will need to go forward and will need to be rock solid. When this good change happens whether its forestry, agriculture, technology, what are we going to do to attract those people?”

“We really need to look at that. Things like a recreation centre, so that we can attract professionals,” he said.

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