Old ways just won’t work

Forests are the northwest’s greatest untapped natural resource, says SNCIRE executive director Rick Brouwer

Forests are the northwest’s greatest untapped natural resource, according to Rick Brouwer, forester and executive director at Skeena Nass Centre for Innovation in Resource Economics (SNCIRE).

“All of the industry that was here is gone, so that means we have a new opportunity to grow a new solution,” he said.

But Brouwer says the key to a thriving northwest forestry industry is a multi-pronged approach, meaning that one blanket solution isn’t going to cut it.

“I’m quite bullish there is great opportunity here,” he said.

“We just need to find the right suite of solutions, and that’s the challenge—there’s no one silver bullet.”

The way the industry worked in the past isn’t going to work again.

“One of the things we’ve come to realize [at SNCIRE] is that just because you did it before doesn’t mean you’re going to do it that way again,” he said.

“We need to find clustered solutions and brand new solutions as well.”

In the past, B.C. has  excelled at utilizing our natural resources and producing commodities, he said, but over time that edge was lost.

“Dealing with strictly commodities means you’re at the mercy of the global market,”  said Brouwer.

The northwest specifically has the problem of forests that are too mature, meaning that the eco-system is at its climax and there is a lot of rot and death in the forest.

“This means that when you log for industrial purposes you have to whittle through a lot of trees you can’t do anything with in the current model,” he said.

We need to be making the most out of these poor-quality trees, he said, something that the old model doesn’t really facilitate.

“We need to diversify,” Brouwer continued. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a lumber mill, but we need to have more than that.”

There are a number of innovative ideas that could help diversify the industry, said Brouwer, that need to be explored —like different ways to transport wood to be manufactured—but this is difficult to do until it’s known what manufacturing facility is on the other end.

“That’s the quandary we find this region is in,” he said. “Without any real industrial supporters around mills we’re finding it’s difficult to try these innovative solutions.”

Emerging technologies in forestry may present new opportunities for northwest’s forests.

Anything from aromatic oils that use the needles of trees, fibres that could be stronger than kevlar, to potentially turning the pitch from balsam trees into a natural replacement for BPA, a plastic additive found in a myriad of goods that Canada declared toxic in 2010.

“If we could find a natural replacement for BPA in balsam trees, and we have a lot of balsam trees … then maybe instead of cutting down the trees we’ll be tapping them like maple syrup,” said Brouwer.

“Who knows? We try to think way outside the box in terms of opportunities,” he mused.

But in order to research innovative ideas like this, there needs to be monetary support – which is harder to come by in this federal climate.

Still, Brouwer is optimistic that the industry will get where it needs to be, even if it gets there slower than he may like.

Some of the solutions won’t be new, he said, citing the first pulp mill in Prince Rupert that used to produce pulp for rayon, and bio-energy will certainly be part of the solution, although it’s unclear exactly how.

If we can build an industry that can utilize each kind of wood, from the high-end to the low-quality—or fiber-quality, as Brouwer likes to call it—product at the right time in the market for that specific product it will prove successful.

“When you have a lumber mill and you have to feed the machine, the problem is that sometimes you’re feeding the machine at a loss because you’re just trying to feed the machine,” he said.

“But with all of these other aspects in place, you can be feeding the mill with the right thing at the right time,” he said.

In order to do this, we need to get a good idea of the different mechanical and chemical properties of the forests here and start to match that with the opportunities and markets that are out there, added Brouwer.

“My ultimate goal, and SNCIRE’s ultimate goal is to produce the higher end type of products,” he said. “If that becomes our focus then we produce the commodities almost as a by-product.”