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Forestry players brace for future

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Forestry players brace for future

Written by Frank Peebles for The Prince George Citizen, January 23 2014

While there are contraction pains still to be felt, the long-term prognosis for the provincial forestry industry is healthy, according to the members of a panel at the Premier’s Natural Resources Forum.

Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Management Steve Thomson, Council of Forest Industries CEO James Gorman, Dunkley Lumber vice-president Jason Fisher and West Fraser vice-president Chris McIver were all optimistic about forestry’s future.

“Industry is moving cautiously,” said Gorman, whose group represents wood enterprises of all sizes across the province. “We are trying to work with government to increase certainty around timber supply, so each community and each company can plan accordingly. There is a fundamental fact [the shortfall in timber due to the mountain pine beetle], and that is going to require some adjustments.”

One of the examples, he said, was the unprecedented deal last fall between major competitors Canfor and West Fraser to each close one mill and leave the other open in Quesnel and Houston to consolidate and save their operations in those communities.

“We see the Central Interior in the next couple of years as very challenging,” said McIver. “The U.S. south does have a timber surplus. You will see, for a time, stable pricing for wood produced down there. As we right-size in the Interior of B.C., you’ll see things turn good again around this region, but there are some hard times and hard decisions ahead in the short-term. But long-term, we think this will be a great place for investment.”

Two of the saving factors in the forest industry, which cushioned the sector from the U.S. home construction collapse in 2008 and the resulting global economic downturn, was opening up trade relations in Asia.

Japan was already a valued customer of B.C. wood construction products, but China also became a major buyer just when building in America dried up. Since then, China and Japan have remained and the United States is slowly returning to the purchasing table.

The second major momentum for the B.C. forest industry was the advent of new, high-tech wood products. Glu-laminate and cross-laminate building products are now a thriving item on the wood menu, as evidenced by the components going into the new Wood Innovation and Design Centre in downtown Prince George.

“It’s great to do demonstration projects in other markets throughout the world, but when you see it in the domestic commercial market, you know it is really taking off,” said McIvor of the engineered wood culture now developing. “This is a game-changer for us. We can take wood products from B.C. and compete directly with concrete and steel – and, we believe, in a sustainable way.”

He credited the provincial government for retooling the B.C. Building Code to allow for six-story buildings built entirely of wood. The wood industry will do better now that there are products and regulations in place for construction projects like small commercial high-rises and strip-malls. However, McIvor cautioned that one architectural firm in the United States was working on the specs for a 40-story wood tower.

“B.C. has been way ahead of everybody on this, and it is spreading across Canada now,” but there was no room to rest on the current building codes and not keep advancing the province’s base industry.

Premier Christy Clark was the keynote speaker on the forum’s opening day and said government data indicated B.C. forestry was going to generate 25,000 new jobs in the next 10 years.

She and minister Thomson each stressed the importance of the ongoing review of the B.C. Timber Sales organization. They took turns explaining that this review was not complete but would set the table for much of the policies that would follow. Items like tenure reform (the places major companies are allowed to harvest wood on an ongoing basis) could not occur until that process was complete.

Another significant challenge, but also an exciting opportunity, according to the forestry officials, was the skilled labour shortage being felt across all sectors of the economy.

“We are not sure we have the training alignment quite right,” said Gorman. “I know that is the focus of the Jobs Plan and I know Minister [Shirley Bond, responsible for jobs and skills training] has turned her mind to that,” so there is optimism the correct course material and practical learning experiences would soon be accessible to a new wave of forestry workers.

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