The Vavenby sawmill is closing for good in July, wiping out 180 direct jobs in a community of just 3,500 people. In August, the Tolko sawmill in Quesnel will be the next to go down. Across British Columbia’s Interior, forestry-dependent communities are waiting to see whose mill will be next.
Analysts predict – and nobody is arguing – that between seven and 12 sawmills are going to fold as the amount of trees available for logging plummets in the wake of the pine-beetle infestation, massive forest fires and other climate calamities. Change is coming. The question is how these communities will adapt.
Merlin Blackwell is mayor of the District of Clearwater, whose community includes Vavenby, a small town about 150 kilometres northeast of Kamloops. The forestry giant Canfor paid the district $120,000 in taxation annually, but the loss of the mill goes far deeper. “It’s hard for the workers in the mill, and it’s hard for the contractors,” Mr. Blackwell said. The community has weathered mill closings before, but that was when workers could head out to the oil patch for a job until the good times returned.
The Vavenby mill closing is pushing the district to move on to Plan B. After a similar downturn in 2008, Clearwater began to pursue diversification. Tourism is now almost equal in value to the economy here. “This is such a great place to live, we have a ridiculous amount of outdoor activities," Mr. Blackwell said.
When the province sends its economic transition team – which it will – Mr. Blackwell is ready with a list. One request is to improve broadband access, so the community can attract families who can telecommute for a living. “Maybe we aren’t going to have one great, big industry, but a hundred small ones," he said. "We don’t want to end up relying on one industry again.”
Bob Simpson was once dubbed “Chicken Little” in B.C.'s Legislature for warning, back in 2004, that this was coming. The pine beetle infestation was already well on its way to destroying vast tracts of B.C.'s forests, but the mills in the Interior were running flat out, aiming to process the timber before it was of no value. As the NDP MLA for a northern community at the epicentre of the pine beetle destruction, Mr. Simpson warned it was not sustainable. “My first question in Question Period was, let’s start planning for the coming industry meltdown." Saying out loud then that mill closings were inevitable, was not a popular stand.
Mr. Simpson is now mayor of Quesnel, where he has been working to prepare his community for this eventuality. This month, city hall will open its own Forestry Innovation Centre as part of that plan. Forestry will continue to sustain the economy, but with more emphasis on secondary manufacturing.
When Tolko announced it will permanently close the Quest Wood sawmill in August, Mr. Simpson did not cry that the sky is falling. He says employers in Quesnel can absorb those workers: “Our biggest pinch point these days is critical job openings that can’t be filled," he said. “We have low unemployment and you can’t get contractors.”
But there is still more pressure to come.
This month, B.C. Premier John Horgan will have to decide whether he will implement a draft plan to save the southern mountain caribou – a plan that calls for habitat protection that will further reduce the amount of timber available for harvest. The caribou were listed as a threatened wildlife species in 2003, and while politicians dodged the tough decisions, the caribou continued to disappear. For a number of these herds, whatever solution is imposed this month will come too late.
Similarly, warnings about the risk of dead forests in the wake of the pine beetle didn’t prompt broad mitigation measures. Seven years ago, the forests ministry looked at regions affected by the mountain pine beetle, and forecast that 2.2 million hectares could burn in the next four decades. They warned then that climate change and the volume of dead wood will combine for longer fire seasons and more extreme blazes that are tougher to combat.
That forecast was, sadly, optimistic. In the past two years alone, 2.5 million hectares of land were consumed in wildfires, and early signs are pointing to another devastating wildfire season this year.
B.C.'s 140 communities that depend on forestry are on the front lines of adapting to the changing climate.
Bob Simpson and others like him called it correctly more than a decade ago. Now the future – a forest industry with less wood to cut – is here.