An Editorial Opinion – Right From The Stump, September 18, 2023
Job losses and reductions in work have been confirmed as real consequences of British Columbia’s initiatives on old growth forest policy.
Spar Tree Group’s May 2023 forest sector survey found three quarters of timber harvesting and road building contractors for the BC forest sector were experiencing some amount of work reduction due to old growth deferrals. Furthermore, the survey results indicated at least 1,000 jobs may have been displaced because of the deferrals in timber harvesting alone. These estimates do not include forest product manufacturers (sawmills, pulp mills, value-added mills) nor the other segments of the forest sector’s supply chain.
It was three years ago that the province of British Columbia released the Old Growth Strategic Review’s A New Future For Older Forests and its fourteen recommendations. At that time the government committed to accept all fourteen recommendations, unilaterally, without democratic debate, without meaningful consultation and without even conducting an analysis to understand the social and economic impacts of their decision. That commitment would change the BC forest sector and impact the businesses and the lives of people reliant of the forest industry for what is likely forever more.
The BC forest sector is complex and integrated to the extent that even as little as a tweak to one issue can send cascading ramifications throughout the industry. Make widespread changes such as the current old growth policy targeting 2.6 million hectares of old growth forests for deferrals from harvesting, and you get a recipe for gridlock.
The evidence of the impact of such actions is in the industry’s statistics. After a mild rebound from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the provincial Crown timber harvest has since decreased by 16 million cubic metres or over -30%. For 2023, timber harvesting is down -23% year-to-date to August.
Reduced harvesting has translated into lower softwood lumber production which has declined by 2.8 billion board feet or -28%. Year-to-date production is off by -19% (as of June). These decreases are anticipated to continue and have resulted in mill closures. Staying on this path will mean more closures are expected.
To be fair, reductions in timber harvesting and lumber production are not entirely due to old growth policy and deferrals. Other factors such as the now-past mountain pine beetle epidemic and ongoing wildfires have definitely contributed in part to these decreases. However, it is well accepted by industry that old growth deferrals have further challenged industry’s ability to seek out economically viable fibre in an already increasingly constrained fibre supply environment. Because of these other factors, clarity on understanding the impacts from old growth forest policies are not distinct, and furthermore, almost nobody is talking about the old growth deferral impacts in a public dialogue.
Fortunately, Spar Tree Group has asked the most vulnerable section of the forest sector’s supply chain, the province’s community of timber harvesting and road building contractors if they were specifically experiencing work reductions due to old growth deferrals. Responding contractors representing over an estimated $1.1 billion in contracting services and 32% of the entire provincial Crown harvest offered their feedback.
The survey conducted during May 2023 found that 73% of contractors were experiencing work reductions due to old growth deferrals. By region, 81% of interior contractors and 65% of coastal contractors were experiencing reductions.
The amount of work reductions that have occurred varied by contractor, with some experiencing as high as 80% to 100% reductions. The average work reduction reported was 34%.
The percentage of contractors experiencing reduced work is likely an under-estimate given some contractors said their licensee (as the forest tenure holder) so far had been successful in diverting operations to other areas; however, they believe alternative areas in which to operate within are diminishing and therefore they may soon begin to feel the impacts.
Approximately 52% of contractors said the amount of people they employ (as in crew size) decreased specifically due to the old growth deferrals causing some level of work reductions. For those that reported they had not reduced crew size, it might be speculated that attrition in their crews due to retirement may have helped offset needs to lay off workers or they were able to modify operations to sidestep impacts of reduced old growth harvesting.
When extrapolating the tally of reported jobs displaced as reported by responding contractors, it suggests over 1,000 jobs may have been displaced so far due to old growth deferrals in timber harvesting alone. The actual amount is probably much higher given this estimate was solely for timber harvesting contractors, yet we know that several mills have closed over the last couple of years. Furthermore, deferrals from harvesting were just the first of the fourteen recommendations to be carried out – there are more negative impacts likely to come.
What has been the impact on First Nations’ and non-First Nations’ communities and businesses that rely on timber harvesting for their revenues and employment? There has been very little to no discussion on this.
One of the implied trade-offs for reduced old growth harvesting was supposed to be increased higher value manufacturing according to the government’s vision. While there have been a few value-added manufacturing initiatives announced so far, it has not been anywhere close to the magnitude needed to supplant what has been lost.
Anti-forestry advocates are calling for more and faster action on old growth forests, based on the impacts that have been described above. Giving into to such pressure is what got us into this trouble in the first place. It is incumbent on local governments and all members of the provincial government to ask what are the potential impacts of the next steps? Perhaps some analysis should actually be done on the outstanding fourteen recommendations of the A New Future For Older Forest report prior to causing more turmoil.
To my knowledge, no one has said we should not manage for old growth. It’s more a matter of how and what we manage. Yes - we should improve our efforts in managing for old growth, but it is a complete myth to believe we are harvesting the last of our old growth when at least 75% of the existing old growth forests in this province are not threatened by harvesting.
As currently being done now with deferrals, drawing lines on a map and calling a stand of old growth timber “protected” based on a generic prescribed level of representation across the province seems like an archaic way to manage our forests. Evidence of that can be witnessed by how much old growth forests and other areas of significant non-timber natural values have been burnt in this year’s wildfires.
We need to be open to new ways of managing forests in BC that are dynamic and active to promote forest resilience instead of creating static area set asides to achieve a target which meets some environmental or political agenda. There needs to be a robust understanding and discussion of the impacts from the various options to build the necessary alignment required to enhance the resilience of our forests and sustain our sector and communities.
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Written By David Elstone, RPF
Publisher, View From The Stump newsletter
Managing Director, Spar Tree Group Inc.