Look beyond trees

It’s impossible to talk about where the northwest forest industry is without celebrating the economic heroism of the people of the northwest

By Robin Austin

The forest industry in the northwest is having its own second growth. With Skeena Sawmills running a full shift and looking at adding another, good news for forest workers is easier to find than it has been over much of the past decade.

It’s impossible to talk about where the northwest forest industry is without celebrating the economic heroism of the people of the northwest, who never stopped believing that forestry was part of this community’s future. That extends to every worker keeping Skeena Sawmills running, to all the people out in our woods or on our highways right now, doing the work that first built the trestles of the Old Bridge years ago.

Perhaps in Terrace we live so close to the forest that we couldn’t imagine giving up our mills, or perhaps a person has to be a certain kind of stubborn to thrive here. Either way, while many communities across the province lost their mills and were reduced to logging and long hauling, we held on. While northwest forestry still faces challenges, there are a number of opportunities coming down river that could improve the outlook beyond the first springs of new growth we’re seeing now.

One of the biggest challenges for forestry in the northwest is that a lot of the trees that grow here are not easily turned into things like two-by-fours.

That’s why, if forestry in northwest B.C. is going to thrive in the 21st century, we have to think beyond dimensions lumber and telephone poles. That means thinking about the future and making a plan to take advantage of emerging economic opportunities.

The good news is this region is one of the world’s best at producing fibre, and there is lots of new interest in using wood fibre outside of traditional uses like two-by-fours.

For example, scientists have been looking to wood to provide plant-based alternatives to non-renewable chemicals and fuels. Everything from pellets for modern, high-efficiency pellet heating stoves, to ethanol to help us fuel our cars, to important chemicals used in industrial processes, can be made from wood. The kind of fibre we have in the northwest is ideal for these kind of uses, so as demand for fibre for these processes grows, so can the forest industry in our communities.

Today, more than ever, the forest industry is about so much more than what goes on in the woods. Like much of our economy, this industry is caught in a web of global forces that are impossible to resist if we let them wash over us. The only way we have the chance to dictate our destiny is by investing in staying ahead of the tsunami.

Thankfully, having seen how committed people in northwest communities are to maintaining the forest industry, I have no doubt that we will find a way to make forests work for us. However, we will have the most success if we work together across the province to become leaders in finding new ways to market and use our forest resources.

That means seeing the forest industry beyond the trees – believing in and investing in our capacity to develop new products from old fibre. We have a start at UNBC – but my hope is that the government will dare to believe the B.C. industry can rise from beetle-wood ashes to lead the world in finding new uses for wood fibre.

The spirit that the people of Terrace showed as they worked to save our local forest industry can lead the way.

Robin Austin is the MLA for Skeena