Over the past 12 years, the mountain pine-beetle epidemic in B.C. has prompted a series of action plans, action coalitions, task forces, investment strategies and emergency response teams. In the time it has taken to destroy more than half of the province's commercially valuable pine timber, the beetle has also consumed more than $1-billion in government funds.
Now, as the community of Houston, in the province's northern Interior, grapples with the closing of the town's lumber mill, the mayor says his community is unprepared for its post-beetle future. "A lot of money was spent on action plans," Mayor Bill Holmberg said in an interview Monday. "We haven't really seen the rubber hit the road."
The money has gone to airport expansions, highway repaving, bio-energy research projects and what critics say is routine reforestation. A trio of community-based Beetle Action Coalitions handed out provincial grant money. The Anahim Lake Airport got $515,000 to build a terminal. The village of McBridge received $52,000 to develop and promote walking trails. In Houston, there was $10,050 for a "geo-exchange energy-system monitoring plan."
That hasn't prepared people in Houston for the loss of a key employer in the community of 3,600 when West Fraser Timber Co. shuts down its plant by next May. The forest company is offering relocation packages to its 255 employees at the mill. That won't help the community replace a gaping hole in its industrial tax base, nor does it cushion the many workers who indirectly serve the mill in spinoff jobs.
"It was a shock," Mr. Holmberg said. "We knew this day would come, but we still thought it was a few years away." Last week, the province sent a transition team to Houston in the wake of the mill announcement. "They want to help, but how do you find jobs for guys that have been running chipper-canters for 25 years – what do you retrain them into?
The B.C. government announced a Mountain Pine Beetle Action Plan in 2001 that aimed to curtail the spread of the beetle. Two years later, an initiative was launched to try to find new markets for beetle-killed wood. By 2004, the government was working on strategies that aimed to cut and process the wood as fast as possible – a short-term bonanza for the interior forest industry, but always with the day looming that the wood would run out.
Forests Minister Steve Thomson said his government has done a good job in preparing forest-dependent communities for the future. "We have invested in mineral exploration, economic diversification, there is the potential for [liquefied natural gas.]"
But now, faced with the mill closing in Houston and the Canfor mill closing in Quesnel, Mr. Thomson said there is more to be done. "We recognize now, with the decisions that have been made, there is really focused work that needs to take place," he said. "We know it's possible that other mills may need to close. … The strategic work has been done, now we need to look at what opportunities there are."
The province has committed a total of $917-million to date, with the largest share going to a program called Forests for Tomorrow that pays for reforestation activities. But the federal government has scaled back on its initial commitment of $1-billion. It has provided $340-million, roughly divided between controlling the spread of the beetle, and helping communities diversify their economies.
Norm Macdonald, the B.C. NDP forestry critic, said what is missing is an overarching plan that would allow the public to measure whether all those initiatives are working.
"There is precious little that one can point to that the government has done to prepare workers and communities for a difficult time," he said. "If the investments were good investments, where are the value-added manufacturing plants, where are the jobs that were going to come from bio-energy?"
Bob Simpson, the former Independent MLA for Cariboo North who spent years warning that the government was unprepared for the day that pine beetle wood runs out, said the Auditor-General should conduct a value-for-money audit. "There is an accountability issue here: A billion dollars is a lot of money when a community is so ill-prepared for this."