Looking back, John Rustad remembers how the Nechako Lakes region didn’t experience much economic development in the 1990s.
Aside from some investment in lumber mills, the area saw practically nothing in terms of health and education improvements. The provincial government of the day shelved the Mount Milligan mining project and approved only one mine for production. Road maintenance funding was a fraction of what it is today, he recalls.
“Without getting overly political,” he said, “we really didn’t receive a whole lot of attention.”
In his nine consecutive years as MLA, beginning in 2005 in the Prince George-Omineca riding, Rustad has witnessed and largely presided over the development of the Nechako Valley into a focal point of public and private sector investment.
International hay exports are on the rise, lumber prices are peaking at nearly $400 per 1,000 board feet due to demand in Asia and the U.S., and the Mount Milligan mine is almost finished being built.
Compounded by the advancement of numerous oil and gas pipelines, the Nechako Valley, with its bounty of minerals, fiber and fertile agricultural land, is slowly turning into a major economic frontier.
“Our area has a tremendous amount of potential for the type of growth we haven’t seen in a generation or two,” said Rustad on Friday, Jan. 4.
Last year, Rustad worked closely with ministers and municipal officials to support a proposal by the College of New Caledonia (CNC) to build a new campus in Vanderhoof and upgrade facilities in Burns Lake and Fort St. James.
And as New Gold, TransCanada, the Thompson Creek Metals Company, the BID Construction Group and other companies move forward with their respective projects, Rustad is interacting with industry to establish more skills training programs.
“It’s making sure that our own people coming out of school, as well as people that may be underemployed and need upgraded skills, have the opportunity locally to be able to take advantage of these jobs as they’re created,” said Rustad.
He credited Vanderhoof Mayor Gerry Thiessen for developing the Nechako Valley Post Secondary Education Working Group, whose overall objective is to expand post-secondary education with the construction of a new CNC campus in Vanderhoof.
“He’s done a tremendous amount of work on that front,” Rustad said of Thiessen.
“We’ll continue working closely to try and bring that addition forward.”
The forestry industry, which accounts for about 42 per cent of the Nechako Valley’s overall economy, has also been one of Rustad’s primary areas of attention.
As chair of the Special Committee on Timber Supply, Rustad directed a report, published in August 2012, on increasing the central interior’s timber supply following the onslaught of the mountain pine beetle (MPB) epidemic.
The epidemic killed almost half the pine in the Lakes, Quesnel and Vanderhoof forest districts, according to the report.
Over several months of public hearings, technical briefings, site visits and meetings with industries and First Nations in communities across northern B.C., the committee documented a wide range of views and ideas on how the province should move forward.
The committee incorporated these findings into a series of recommendations presented to the Legislative Assembly of B.C. last year, among them was the expansion of area-based tenures, including woodlots, community forests, First Nation woodlot tenures, and area-based tenures for licensees.
“There is no question in my mind that the options we’ve come up with through the Timber Supply Committee have given us more tools to minimize the impact of the MPB epidemic,” said Rustad.
As developers in the U.S. start building homes again, and demand for fiber surges in Asia, Canadian lumber prices will climb higher, area mills will see more capital investment and more jobs will be created, said Rustad.
On the ground, the potential exists for furthering area-based silviculture and expanding bio-economy opportunities associated with Nechako Valley fiber.
“I’m very optimistic about our forestry industry over the next four or five years,” he said.
Rustad also views the $5-billion Enbridge Northern Gateway Project with enthusiasm, mainly for the benefits it would create for the province and country.
In fact, his view of the project hasn’t changed, even after many months of hearings and heated debate over Enbridge’s proposal to build a 1,172-kilometre pipeline across northern B.C., which would transport bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands to the Pacific coast for export to Asia and the U.S. via hundreds of oil tankers.
“What they’re planning to build is basically better than any pipeline in North America,” said Rustad, who has discussed safety issues with Enbridge representatives on several occasions.
“There will never be zero risk, but it’s as close as you can get. It’s a phenomenal plan they’ve put in place.”
Rustad, an avid consumer of national business news, says the price of Canadian oil dropped to a record low in December 2012 in comparison with international prices, simply because producers in Canada have an overabundance of oil but not enough avenues to get it to market.
There aren’t enough rail cars or pipelines, both of which are already operating at nearly full capacity. Thus, Canada is forced to sell oil to the U.S., it’s main export market, at a discounted price, explained Rustad.
The result is a potential loss of $150-million in revenue per day, he said, laughing in disbelief.
“That is money, federally and provincially, that could be going towards a wide variety of services to help support our economy,” he said.
“It’s a lost opportunity because we don’t have the infrastructure in place.”
Ever since the 1950s, the politics surrounding pipelines has been deemed a challenge, partly because some groups are opposed to every energy project, no matter what the objective is, said Rustad.
But wether it’s via the Enbridge pipeline to the Pacific, the Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico, or a retrofitted TransCanada pipeline to the Atlantic, Canada must get its oil to offshore markets somehow, said Rustad.
Regardless if the Enbridge pipeline is built or not, other proposals will emerge, mining activity will proliferate and existing energy projects will press on throughout the Nechako Valley.
All this progress means more people, more traffic and added stress on the region’s infrastructure, admits Rustad, who continues to press the provincial government for more road improvements.
During his term as Nechako Lakes MLA, from 2009 to the present day, Rustad says between 70 to 80 per cent of Highway 16 has been resurfaced in his riding, where provincial funding for road maintenance now averages approximately $15 million annually, up from about $500,000 in the 1990s.
Recently, Rustad announced new passing lanes near Mapes on Highway 16 and south of Fort St. James on Highway 27, with several more planned between Vanderhoof and Prince George.
In time, he said, the road from Fort St. James to the Mount Milligan mine will be strengthened too.
“We really require a good transportation network to be able to facilitate economic growth, which helps create jobs, create growth in our communities and helps pay for other things like, for example, a pool facility,” he said.
Additionally, in a region where people often commute to Prince George and elsewhere for employment, recreation, education and shopping, road improvements “are critical in terms of safety,” said Rustad.
In 2013, Rustad plans to advocate for more infrastructure improvements, focus on the forestry file and move forward with recommendations made by the Timber Supply Committee. He is also preparing to introduce forestry-related legislation in the spring. Expanding post-secondary education expansion and bringing several other infrastructure projects to fruition remain high priorities as well.
Rustad is also getting ready for the election in May 2013, when he will run for a third term with hopes of further facilitating growth to the right environmental standards and creating more opportunities for the people of Nechako Lakes.
“That will be a tough fight,” he said of the upcoming election.
“Your hope is, of course, to go to the people and hope for the opportunity to be reelected, to carry on with the work you’re doing and to do the best job you can.”