Liberal roundtable

Speaking to the media following the provincial Liberals’ roundtable on the B.C. forestry crisis Thursday in Kelowna are, from left: Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick, Westside-Kelowna MLA Ben Stewart, Liberal forestry critic John Rustad and Kelowna-Mission MLA Steve Thomson.

B.C. forestry is in unprecedented crisis and the NDP government isn’t even acknowledging it, let alone taking action, according to the Opposition Liberals.

The NDP retorts it is aware, blames the situation on the Liberals and outlines how it is trying to clean up the mess.

“If the B.C. Liberals had taken action four years ago, forestry communities would be much further ahead today,” said Ravi Kahlon, the NDP parliamentary secretary for forests and MLA for North Delta.

“We’re tackling these challenges so workers can support their families now and in the future.”

An NDP news release on Wednesday said a 2015 report submitted to the then-B.C. Liberal government warned of major problems ahead, but the Liberals didn’t do anything about it.

Liberals, now in opposition, told a different story Thursday at a roundtable event at Kelowna’s Coast Capri Hotel discussing dire conditions in the forestry sector.

“Our forestry industry is in crisis and there’s been no response from the NDP government,” said forestry critic John Rustad, the MLA for Nechako Lakes.

“We can’t do it alone as official Opposition. We need to work together to get to another place down the road.”

Rustad was joined by the Central Okanagan’s three Liberal MLAs and two dozen representatives for Southern Interior forestry companies at the roundtable discussion.

“I have 12 logging trucks that are all parked right now,” said Howard McKimmon of Merritt-based Howard McKimmon Trucking.

“Ever since mid-March, there’s been a trickling down to a complete stop. All the companies I haul logs to (Tolko, Gorman Brothers, Weyerhaeuser and Aspen Planers) are on some kind of slowdown or shutdown.”

Earlier this week, Tolko announced the 140 workers on the only remaining shift at its Kelowna plant will be off the job for a six-week shutdown starting Aug. 6.

On July 12, Tolko axed its second shift of 90 workers.

Later this month, Tolko will forever close its Quesnel lumber mill, putting 150 out of work.

Canfor, Conifex, Louisiana-Pacific, Norbord and Aspen Planers are among the other forestry companies closing mills, making shift reductions or laying off workers.

A perfect storm of conditions is bludgeoning the industry.

Annual allowable harvesting of trees has been slashed after the mountain pine beetle killed half the forest in some parts of the province.

Stumpage, the fees companies pay for cutting trees, is high, and housing construction, the major market for B.C. lumber, is soft.

The NDP has reacted with the Coast Forest Sector Revitalization Plan to increase the processing of logs and wood fibre.

A similar plan for the Interior is in the works.

Changes to B.C.’s building codes allow the construction of wood-frame buildings beyond the previous limit of four storeys.

There’s also a $7.9-million campaign to promote B.C. wood products domestically and internationally.

Kahlon said there’s a labour shortage in B.C. and unemployed forestry workers can receive help to find jobs in other sectors.

Early retirement for some forestry workers might be possible with provincial and federal bridge funding.

Laid-off forestry workers may also qualify for expedited employment insurance.

The Liberals are advocating for lower stumpage fees, higher allowable cuts and reduction of the carbon tax for the forestry industry.

Forestry pays $40 per ton in carbon tax, whereas the liquified natural gas industry pays $30.

Stumpage fees range from $30 to $70 per cubic metre, and they went up July 1 by $15 in some cases.

Stumpage can’t be slashed too much, admitted Rustad, because the Americans would retaliate with higher tariffs on B.C. lumber imported to the U.S.

Harvesting can’t increase too much in consideration of the environment.

However, Rustad said older trees that have stopped absorbing and sequestering carbon could be cut not just to provide lumber but also pellets and biofuels.

“Sweden does it and it’s helped their forestry industry,” he said.

Rustad said Alberta is able to produce $50 per cubic metre cheaper than B.C., $30 of which is stumpage savings and $20 on reduced government red tape.

“B.C. is being impacted even more because we’re the least competitive market in North America,” he said.

“The government has to reduce existing costs and stop adding new costs.”