West Coast Contractors Face Tough Times

West Coast silviculture contractors who tend new forest plantations are in dire straits according to a recently released industry report…

West Coast silviculture contractors who tend new forest plantations are in dire straits according to a recently released industry report. The Western Silviculture Contractors’ Association claims the majority of the estimated 50 contracting firms that space, brush, and prune trees in the Pacific Region are on the verge of extinction largely due to government policy.

Enhanced forestry work for independent contractors, primarily funded these days by Forest Renewal BC, has shrunk drastically over the past four years. Skilled employees are leaving the business. And corporations like FRBC and New Forest Opportunities Ltd., the government owned union hiring agency for silviculture work, are only making things worse states the report.

In fact contractors say they are a victims of a deliberate government strategy to drive them and their workers out of the woods to make room for displaced IWA harvest workers and the other unemployed in West Coast resource and native communities.

“This government has continually refused to recognize the traditional non-union contractors and their crews who have been doing this work for the past 25 years,” says WSCA President Tony Harrison. “Now through FRBC and New Forest Opportunities they’ve succeeded in putting us out of business. It’s a dubious policy triumph.”

According to the WSCA survey which interviewed 35 West Coast stand tending contractors in August almost every respondent reported a 30-per-cent decline in work during the past year with the average decline around 50-per-cent. The report stressed that these trends occurred before this year’s 50-per-cent reduction in FRBC dollars which is the prime funding source for stand tending work. At least 20-per-cent of the contractors contacted reported they were already out of business and only about half of the total industry was at work at all halfway through this year’s field season. Almost every contractor reported the continuing loss of experienced workers who now are lucky to find a few weeks of intermittent cutting compared to times when work was almost year-round on the Coast.

Ironically, it is government job creation policies that have put their crews out of work say contractors. “Clearly the troubles of the industry cannot be dismissed as just the consequences of the normal cycles of profit and loss. Contractors are not going out of business because they all of a sudden can’t bid properly,” the report stated.

In the past four years the hectares brushed, spaced, and pruned by government on the Coast have actually declined. At the same time FRBC job creation and job training programs have introduced hundreds of new workers into the industry. The WSCA estimates stand tending was running efficiently with about 500 workers in the Pacific Region prior to FRBC.

Now the number of participants in the industry placed on jobs through the government’s New Forest Opportunities Ltd. is around 1,200. “There is barely enough work to go around already,” says Harrison, “and this year’s opportunities are reduced by half.”

The Jobs & Timber Accord, announced two years ago, identified displaced forest workers, First Nations, and the unemployed as hiring priorities without any mention of the hundreds of skilled and able workers already occupying the silviculture industry. Announcing the Accord and justifying the creation of the unionized New Forest Opportunities Ltd. hiring agency then Premier Clark pronounced that enhanced forestry had never taken place prior to Forest Renewal BC. The the work is all new said Clark. But the Premier’s view contradicts the past few decades of ministry of forest annual reports which document extensive enhanced forestry programs back into the seventies. When contractors expressed their concerns that they would lose out FRBC gave the deadpan reply that once their people had lost their jobs they would be eligible for work through New Forest Opportunities.

But that was only the beginning of some elliptical logic on government’s part. According to the WSCA Forest Renewal has figures that clearly show competitive contractor crews are more productive, highest paying, and lowest cost. Yet the corporation continues to train unneeded recruits and award projects to more expensive IWA and community partners crews. At the same time millions have been spent on training replacements and millions more on providing transition support for hundreds of skilled stand tending workers who are being displaced out of the industry.

“This is really not your tax dollar at work,” says Harrison. “It is public funds being wasted and a good value forest industry sector and their employees being destroyed.”