When a tree falls, does anyone listen?

The destruction of the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake last month has thrust northern forestry issues back to the fore.

By Bill Phillips

The destruction of the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake last month has thrust northern forestry issues back to the fore.

Workers in Burns Lake are understandably angry that the mill’s owners, Hampton Affiliates, did not immediately announce they would rebuild.

Things aren’t that simple … and it has to do with timber supply and the mountain pine beetle infestation.

Independent Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson, who actually worked at the Burns Lake mill when he toiled for Weldwood, has an interesting take on whether the mill should, or will, re-open.

“It needs to be plainly stated that assigning a long-term timber supply to Babine in order to get Hampton Affiliates to commit to rebuilding that mill will simply shift the pain of job loss to other communities in the region,” says Simpson.

“The government cannot and must not take steps to secure a long-term log supply for Burns Lake simply because their mill burnt down, government must continue to look at the whole picture and make decisions based on potential impacts to all the operations and all the communities in the mountain pine beetle zone.

“The issue of securing a long-term timber supply for the Babine mill existed before it was gutted by fire. It’s a question for every mill and every community in the 17.4 million hectare mountain pine beetle zone.”

That includes Prince George.

One of the byproducts of the mountain pine beetle devastation has been elevated cut levels throughout the North so we can mill as much of that dead timber as we can before it rots.

According to the Chief Forester, by 2019 the vast majority of that dead pine will no longer be commercially viable (that is, it will be at the end of its 15-year “shelf life”).

“The manufacturing capacity in the region has been built to an abnormally high level of harvest – an unsustainable level of harvest,” says Simpson.

“So, as the cut levels come down from the beetle uplifts and, likely, fall below historic levels of annual allowable harvest rates every mill in the area will struggle to feed their needs and some will have to close or curtail their operations.”

“We’ve known this day has been coming for ten years – since 2002 when it became evident that this beetle infestation was like no other and would likely wipe out most of the interior pine forest. We only have a few years left to figure out how we’re going to transition a host of forest dependent communities to a dramatically reduced log supply.”

And this goes hand-in-hand with another of Simpson’s favourite issues … forest health. It’s one thing to simply replant pine stands, but it’s quite another to recreate a healthy forest resplendent in biodiversity.

And Simpson is getting some support in that from a non-partisan volunteer-based group calling themselves Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities. Coordinator for the group is Bill Bourgeois, who used to be one of the top dogs at Lignum Forest Products.

The group examined 28 expert papers on current and future forest management and held 20 community dialogue sessions.

It discovered, to no one’s surprise, that British Columbians, especially those in forest-dependent communities, support moving “away from a current short-term forest industry economic focus to long-term stewardship practices directed at meeting community needs.”

The provincial Liberals changed the Forest Act to meet the needs of forest companies, not communities.

Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities does have a few recommendations for the provincial government including, among others: Political parties engage in dialogue with communities and concerned citizens regarding community and family long-term needs; government adopt the requirement for a forest lands vision to guide legislation, regulation and policy; and communities identify initiatives to assist in providing clarity regarding what is needed from local-regional forest lands and mechanisms to become more involved in forest management decisions.

Is anyone listening?

Bill Phillips is the editor of The Prince George Free Press in Prince George, BC.