POLITICS

All-party B.C. timber team weighs industry, community needs in wake of pine beetle devastation

06/22/2012 07:32 EDT | Updated 08/22/2012 05:12 EDT
VICTORIA - The message is virtually the same in every British Columbia community where an all-party government meets — we're hurting, don't hurt us any more.

Forest companies stress that timber supplies impact their bottom lines and communities remind the politicians that forestry feeds their Main Streets, committee deputy chairman Norm Macdonald said Friday.

Macdonald, the Opposition New Democrat's forestry critic, said after visits to Valemount and McBride on Friday, the seven committee members, who have until Aug. 15 to provide a report to Forests Minister Steve Thomson, are deeply aware of the needs of the industry and communities.

A leaked government report last winter warned about thousands of job losses across the B.C. Interior and north due to a declining amount of wood caused by the ravages of the pine beetle epidemic.

Thomson said earlier the committee has a mandate to look for new ways to expand timber supplies, including possible changes to harvest rates, forest tenures and land use policies that include harvesting timber in protected areas.

Macdonald said after visiting at least nine communities, the NDP and Liberal MLAs are hearing similar concerns.

"What we're hearing an awful lot is, 'Don't make things worse,'" he said. "There's consequences to what you do."

In Prince George on Thursday, Lakeland Mills spokesman Greg Stewart told the committee the amount of trees left to cut in area forests will determine if Lakeland Mills rebuilds after a deadly explosion in April that killed two workers and injured two dozen others.

"The conditions to rebuild are favourable, but the outcome of this process plays a large part in that final decision," said Stewart, Sinclar Group president.

"We believe our currently available fibre supply would sustain a new mill."

Stewart said Lakeland has concerns the committee could recommend the company's current annual timber supply allocation is reduced to make room for other forest operations.

The fatal explosion that destroyed the Lakeland Mills sawmill on April 23 was similar to the one that levelled the Babine Forest Products sawmill at Burns Lake in January, also killing two workers and injuring a dozen others.

The Lakeland Mills operation was dealt another blow Friday when Stewart announced the shutdown of the planer mill and the indefinite layoff of 28 workers following the discovery of high levels of methane gas in test soil samples conducted by the company.

Stewart said Lakeland is putting the safety of its employees first and will conduct further tests to determine why methane gas was found in soil samples.

On Thursday, the timber supply committee also heard from Prince George area grassroots stakeholders like the Salmon River Farmers Institute and local resident James Steidle.

"We have to understand that there are other values in the forest. We have to slow down and manage this resource more carefully," Steidle said in a report by the Prince George Citizen.

"That said, I work with wood every day, I am part of a forest industry. We just have to put more sense into how we do this. I was watching 200-year-old Douglas fir sold for pulp and plywood. As a carpenter and woodworker, that was a real waste."

Prince George Mayor Shari Green said there is the need to make timber supply decisions that minimize the current pain to mills that employ area residents but not at the expense of long-term viability.

"You have some companies that have already made adjustments in the face of the economic challenges the industry has gone through," she said. "You don't want to penalize those who have been proactive when others have not implemented such foresight."

Stewart said Sinclar was able to keep its other operations, especially Lakeland, afloat by redistributing the amount they were allowed to cut to the remaining mills.

With possible reductions to the timber supply coming, Stewart said there may not be enough left over to rebuild.

An estimated 18.1 million hectares _ an area more than five times the size of Vancouver Island _ have been affected to some degree by the mountain pine beetle.

-- with files from Frank Peebles, Prince George Citizen