A New Democrat forestry committee is touring the province to tackle raw log exports.
Committee members – Norm McDonald, Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA and New Democrat forestry critic; Bill Routley, Cowichan Valley MLA; Harry Lali, Fraser-Nicola MLA; and Claire Trevena, North Island MLA – started touring Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast Thursday to meet with industry, labour, local government representatives and other forest industry stakeholders.
Over the next four months, the committee will also visit the Lower Mainland, the southern and central Interior, the Kootenays and northern B.C. to develop strategies to curtail raw log exports.
The Western Forest Products lumber mill in Chemainus and the Coastland Wood Industries veneer mill in Nanaimo were the committee’s first stops last week.
“We have proposals that we want to discuss to reduce raw log exports,” Routley said. “We want to find out other people’s views on how we can get more value from the B.C. forests and how we can stabilize this forest industry that has been clearly abandoned by the Liberal government.”
B.C.’s raw log exports began in the 1990s at about 1 million cubit metres per year. In 2011, those exports rose to a record 5.5 million cubic meters or about 40 per cent of production on the B.C. coast.
“Obviously we want to look at log exports in terms of whether we can add incentives or some kind of tax on the logs that are being exported,” Routley said. “There’s already a fee in lieu of manufacturing, but clearly it’s not working because China has 82 new mills and we’ve lost 70 mills in British Columbia and 35,000 full-time forest industry jobs.”
Routley, a former forestry union leader, said the government has also not paid enough attention to forest health issues or ensured forest lands are being sufficiently restocked to supply B.C.’s forest industry in the future.
In January, B.C. Premier Christy Clark pledged continued support for raw log exports as part of the government’s overall employment strategy.
Brian Butler, vice president of United Steelworkers Local 1-1937, which represents logging and sawmill workers, joined the NDP MLAs Thursday to tour the mill in Chemainus.
“The steelworkers have been lobbying government, lobbying the opposition and lobbying anybody that will listen,” Butler said. “It’s just a short-sighted policy. There may be some limited need for it in certain areas and we’re open to discussion on that, but the rampant log exports that are going out off this province right now is ridiculous.”
Butler credits Western Forest Products for announcing $16 million to retrofit its Saltair mill – the company will inject $200 million into its Island sawmills over the next three years to meet growing Asian markets – but noted this is the first heavy investment by the company since the 1990s.
He added that other mill operators have not followed suit and most mills are still not operating anywhere near full capacity.
If B.C.’s mills do increase production, they need buyers for the products. And there is positive economic news on the horizon for the softwood lumber industry.
A recent report from International Wood Markets Group indicates softwood lumber demand and prices will rise as U.S. housing construction ramps up in 2013 and lumber prices could skyrocket if demand outstrips supply in 2015.
“As a result of that the folks who are still in the lumber business will be doing very well indeed,” Routley said. “The government knows these statistics as well and now is the time to act. We’re at a tipping point here, I think. If we don’t do something to maintain some kind of balance in B.C. to maintain our manufacturing jobs, and improve manufacturing jobs, we’ll just become an exporter of logs.”