Lucky logger?

PAT BELL says he can’t think of a better time to be the province’s forest minister. Clearly a glass half full kind of person, Mr. Bell, who recently replaced Rich Coleman, says there’s boundless opportunity awaiting the forest industry – once everything from a devastated American housing market to pine beetle gets resolved.

Mr. Bell is due to bring his message of optimism to the northwest soon. It’s very a much a message of Liberal government new-speak containing buzz phrases such as carbon sequestration and cap and trade.

When Mr. Bell does get back to talking trees, it concerns the decades-long challenge that has faced the forest industry here – what to do with the massive amounts of decadent trees, such as hemlock, that aren’t really suitable for sawmilling.

The classic solution has been to log these stands and replant with species that will bring better sawlog value. Mr. Bell’s government now has a way to speed that process – it wants to burn the forests. Not as in forest fires, but at huge plants where the heat from the burning wood will turn water into steam to turn turbines to create electricity.

In the provincial government’s new-speak it’s called bio-energy and in Mr. Bell’s view, it could be big business up here. He’s even suggesting there’s an opportunity to burn one million cubic metres of wood a year here, rivalling what was once under the control of regional forest giant Skeena Cellulose which ran the huge pulp mill in Prince Rupert and three sawmills in the interior.

A wood-burning power plant was even quietly shopped around at the old Skeena Cellulose site here once it became clear its days as a sawmilling location were over.

But here’s the thing. Those involved in the local logging industry really want to talk to Mr. Bell about something much more modest – roads, specifically logging roads.

When Skeena Cellulose was the dominant woods industry player its large forest holdings also meant it became a significant road and bridge company. When it disappeared, so did all the maintenance and that’s been bad news ever since for smaller companies who can’t afford to maintain the roads and bridges leading to where they want to log.

The former minister, Rich Coleman, found the local argument compelling, so much so he backed a proposal for financial aid. It got to the cabinet table before being kicked back so Mr. Coleman could do more work on it.

With Mr. Coleman gone, locals now need to convert Mr. Bell to the cause. If he’s smart, he’ll make a briefing on this topic first on his northwest agenda. Modest things first. Then big things later on. Sounds like a plan.

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