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British Columbia Forestry Minister Doug Donaldson is in Asia to help calm fears concerning the downturn in his province's lumber industry.BEN NELMS/The Canadian Press

A forest industry trade mission to Asia faces fewer political tensions this year than last December after the arrest of a top Chinese executive, but concerns about supply issues are now on the table, says British Columbia’s forests minister.

Doug Donaldson, in a teleconference from Tokyo, said Wednesday he and 35 senior executives from B.C. forest companies and associations are on a five-day trade mission to Asia that concludes Friday.

The arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver last year prompted the minister to postpone his planned participation in a forestry trade mission to China. Donaldson said current talks in the country have focused on business.

“Over the past year, time has cooled tensions between the countries on this diplomatic dispute, and so in Shanghai and with our customers and potential clients, the atmosphere was very good,” he said.

But initial meetings in China and now in Japan have also involved calming concerns about reduced supplies of B.C. timber to help in the construction of major residential developments and vacation-resort projects in the countries, he said.

“They are astute business people,” said Donaldson. “They read the headlines and they know about the decline of beetle wood and the decline due to wildfires in volume that’s available.”

A decade-long pine beetle epidemic and two recent record-breaking wildfire seasons destroyed millions of hectares of B.C. forests.

Donaldson said in talks with Japanese investors he emphasized the quality and amount of B.C. timber available despite these natural disasters.

He said Japan imports on average about 2.3 million cubic metres of B.C. softwood every year and the current projection for the province’s annual allowable cut is about 55 million cubic metres, which means there is ample supply for Japanese needs.

But Donaldson is visiting Asia at a time when the province’s forest industry is struggling as mills are closing and hundreds of people are facing layoffs or plant closures.

The Opposition B.C. Liberals recently released a document detailing ongoing industry struggles, listing almost 60 examples where companies have implemented cost-cutting measures that range from harvest reductions to permanent mill closures.

The announcement of the permanent closure of the Tolko lumber mill in Kelowna last week saw the Liberals repeat their call for Premier John Horgan to fire Donaldson.

“One hundred and twenty-five more forestry workers will now be out of jobs in January after over two years of inaction from John Horgan and his forestry minister in the middle of a crisis,” said forestry critic John Rustad in a statement. “How bad does this crisis have to get under the NDP before John Horgan finally fires this inept minister?”

The Forests Ministry said China and Japan are B.C.’s largest markets outside of North America. China represents 28 per cent of the province’s total forest product exports, while Japan is its third-largest export market for lumber products.

The ministry said all forest products exported to China from B.C. in 2018 totalled $4.14 billion, while the amount exported to Japan last year totalled $1.62 billion.

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