Olympic Dreams, Forest Industry Reality

What should be the main focus of the provincial government during this particular period of history? Clearly the decision has already been made: it has chosen the 2010 Olympics.

Softwood pact will trigger taxes.doc

And its not hard to see why. Just imagine the Olympics with its dazzling stadiums, soaring buildings of concrete and glass, and brand new subway line. Countless television interviews. Flashing cameras. Celebrities. Movie stars. Visiting dignitaries. Sleek limousines. A politicians’s wildest dream fulfilled – to be at centre stage in front of the entire world for two whole weeks.

But something else in the shadows is demanding attention. BC’s forest industry is not glamorous. It’s hard hatted workers carrying lunchpails, snorting logging trucks roaring down backroads, whining saws and smelly pulpmills. It’s falling trees in minus 30 degree temperatures or planting them in the heat of summer surrounded by swarms of mosquitoes. It’s 90,000 direct jobs and hundreds of thousands of indirect jobs. It’s little towns and villages like Burns Lake, Fort St. James, Houston and Mackenzie, and bigger ones like Quesnel, Prince George and Kamloops.

Not a movie star, celebrity or foreign dignitary anywhere in sight.

One thing is for sure – the forest industry is definitely not the Olympics. It is something else entirely – the bread and butter of the BC economy and has been so for the last 100 years. Indeed, our region is a world centre for forestry production. But this industry is descending into a crisis that could end up in a permanent decline of forest manufacturing in this province.

Inflammatory words? Hardly. Listen to what Jock Finlayson, executive vice-president of the BC Business Council, has to say: “We’ve got this so-called boom going on in the BC economy yet the largest industry here is not booming …. It’s facing some very, very tough business conditions” (Vancouver Sun, Sept. 23, 2006). Indeed, the pine beetle problem in the BC Interior has been described as the biggest natural disaster of its kind in recorded North American history.

But besides the pine beetle, the forest industry in BC is facing a host of other problems, ranging from the tariffs imposed under the new softwood lumber agreement, global competition, the plunging U.S. housing market, and so on. Other parts of Canada are facing similar problems with mill closures in Saskatchewan, Northern Ontario, and most recently, Quebec.

Yet there are those politicians and government officials who still persist in believing that everything will be fine, even with a greatly diminished forest sector. Mesmerized by visions of the 2010 Olympics, and dreams of pipelines, gas wells, and call centers that they believe are just over the horizon, they boast that things have never been better. And after all, why focus on the negative? Think positive.

Some economic development people will even tell you that they are not interested in talking about forest industry diversification in itself, but only economic diversification in general.

This is a dangerous attitude. Forestry is the backbone of the provincial economy. Without this backbone, what will we have? A de-industrialized economy, one with the spine of a jellyfish.

Forestry manufacturing gives value, breadth and depth to the provincial economy like no other industry. But it is not getting the attention it deserves from all levels of government.

For example, in regards to the funds earmarked for the pine beetle problem, the federal government has promised $100 million a year over the next 10 years. Given the magnitude of this problem that amount will clearly not be enough. But it dwarfs the provincial government’s contribution (much of which has come out of the sale of BC Rail and from federal funding).

There is some irony here because for many years the provincial government has been the recipient of tens of billions of dollars in stumpage revenue, royalties and taxes from the Interior and North. Yet the Victoria government has so far not even matched the federal contribution, which in itself will not be adequate.

Is there a message here? Could it be that, despite all its talk, the government in Victoria is writing off the Interior and North and its pine beetled forests?

Perhaps that explains why some people are subtly trying to change the tone and nature of the discussion. When they talk about how we are now in “a post-beetle stage”, are these really code words for “a post forest industry stage”? They act as if they have already thrown in the towel on the forest industry, and instead focus on oil and gas, call centers, tourism, and, yes, the Olympics, but have little or nothing to say about taking the wood manufacturing of the Interior to the next step: secondary and tertiary manufacturing, and getting more value out of the wood.

Yes, the pine beetle will take a big bite out of the forest, but there are still many healthy trees of other species out there, as well as the standing dead pine. We could and should become a world leader on how to utilize and sustain forests in the midst of radical climate change. And on how to preserve forestry-based communities. Both the provincial and federal governments can play an important role in this, but it means being clear on priorities.

To have a wood manufacturing industry on the scale that exists in the Interior and North of BC is an asset that far overshadows all the fleeting dazzle of any Olympics. It is a jewel that any other part of the world would give their eye teeth for.

The Olympics lasts for two weeks; the forest industry has lasted for a hundred years. Will we allow it to be greatly diminished across the region or even extinguished in some communities? Or will we demand that the provincial and federal governments put this problem front and centre where it should be?

We need to deepen and expand wood manufacturing in this region and take it to a new level of more intensive and sustainable use, not abandon it. And we, as a region, need to make that point very clear to Victoria and Ottawa.

No one else will.

(See appended Word document for the full text of the Vancouver Sun article that quotes Jock Finlayson from the WSCA News Clipping Service for Sept. 23, 2006)