The hollowing out of the B.C. Interior and the demise of small towns everywhere in the province, particularly those dependent on forestry, has been happening for nearly 30 years.
It’s been a train wreck in slow motion that has been well studied, broadly predicted by chief foresters past and present and thoroughly anticipated by industry and governments. Politicians and residents saw it coming, too, but have always hoped for more time, a bit of luck or some unforeseen positive development that would avoid or at least delay the inevitable.
The eradication of small towns is not a B.C. or even a Canadian trend but a worldwide phenomenon, a global migration of people and jobs to regional centres and metropolitan areas. B.C. is certainly no stranger to ghost towns and some, like Barkerville, have been turned into successful historic tourist attractions, but the population decline in rural regions, combined with the centralization of industry and government, retail, education and health services, has sped up in recent years.
Even if the mountain pine beetle hadn’t swept through the region starting 20 years ago, evolving into the destruction of massive stands of valuable, mature trees over the following decade, Interior communities reliant on the local sawmill for most of the good-paying, private sector jobs would still be in trouble.
The modernization of the forest industry has changed every part of the process of turning a tree into a consumer resource, from surveying and logging to milling and manufacturing. Technology has altered every part of the process, increasing efficiency (that phrase is shorthand for producing more wood products with fewer and fewer people) and reducing waste. Mills in Burns Lake and Prince George destroyed by deadly sawdust explosions in 2012 were rebuilt but not as they were before. They now can produce as much or even more wood products than they did before but with a fraction of the employees.
Those technological improvements have forced most small players out of the market, with only a handful of giant corporate players left dominating the majority of the industry’s output. The result, even before this summer of closures and curtailments, has been the permanent shuttering of older, inefficient mills in communities close to the forests being harvested in favour of larger, modern operations fed by trees hauled in by truck from hundreds of kilometres away.
It can’t be stressed enough that all of this was not only foreseen but planned by company leaders forced to quickly and dramatically change their business models to compete in the global marketplace and give themselves a chance at long-term survival. These companies and the people who own and operate them made no secret of their efforts and warned politicians, employees and residents that tens of thousands of jobs would eventually disappear, taking with them the sustainability of one-industry towns throughout the province.
Combining infestation, the steadily declining availability of harvestable trees with no improvement in sight for decades, technology and global economic pressures with devastating wildfires and endless trade disputes has brought B.C.’s forest sector to this moment. Forestry will continue to survive in this region and province, continue to employ thousands and continue to contribute billions to the economy but with far fewer companies and workers generating less revenue in a much different manner than was done in the past.
Sadly, politicians are using these moments for political gain, pointing fingers of blame and fueling anger at the expense of displaced families. Provincially, both NDP and Liberal governments, along with community leaders, have known what was happening but were largely powerless to prevent or even slow these forces working both inside and outside of B.C.’s borders.
One tragic irony has been the ongoing softwood lumber dispute, with small, rural American lumber operations convinced they could survive if they could just stop those pesky Canadians dumping their cheap, government-subsidized lumber into the U.S. market. Those lumber regions in the Pacific Northwest, the Atlantic northeast and the deep South are undergoing the same upheaval being seen in the B.C. Interior.
Neil Godbout is managing editor of the Prince George Citizen.