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  • Investment, not conservation, threatens forestry workers

    James Steidle

    News of old-growth deferrals has set the press on fire with fears of catastrophic job losses.



    The sawmill at Clear Lake south of Prince George, closed in 2011, once supported about 200 workers


    BESIDES THE FACT we will suffer catastrophic job losses one way or the other, when the rapidly dwindling accessible old-growth is extirpated, missing from this discussion is the fact many communities have already suffered tremendously. But the perpetrator wasn’t conservation. It was “progress,” or in other words, unrestrained capitalism.

    Between 1997 and 2017 we lost around 50,000 forestry jobs, almost half the entire forestry work force in this province. Whole communities were scattered to the wind overnight. Conservation had nothing to do with these job losses. Consolidation of mills, automation, and “investment” did. 

    Take Clear Lake, for example, a small mill south of Prince George where I worked as a teenager that produced 120,000 board feet a shift with around 200 workers. That’s around 10 logging truck loads a shift to employ 200 people. It was the most inefficient mill in BC, with green chains, human lumber graders, and community spirit. It never lost money. It was shut down in 2010 and production shifted to Canfor’s super mill at Bear Lake, a place that produces 10 times the lumber (1.2 million board feet a shift) with probably half the workforce.

    In other words, we lost a mill that provided 20 times more jobs per unit of public timber cut compared to the heavily capitalized, heavily automated mills that remained open.  This story has been replicated across the province. Combined with bigger equipment, trucks with eight and even nine axles compared to the old five axle trucks, the huge processors, the feller bunchers, industry has shed thousands of good paying, satisfying bush jobs due to “investment.” 

    We hear a lot about how important “investment” is in the forest industry. We hear about companies like Canfor taking their “investment” to other jurisdictions as if this is a mortal threat to our forests and our forest workers. The reality is, “investment” has been the primary cause of job losses. Sawmilling is fundamentally primitive. The more technology invested, the fewer workers there are. None of this is necessary.

    The value is in the public timber.

    You can make money hauling logs out of the bush with a four-wheeler, a $400 chainsaw, and cutting it on a $30,000 woodmizer and planing it on a $20,000 four-sided logosol planer. We have invested our way out of a sustainable industry that once provided enormous public and social benefits and instead chews through our forests at an unbelievable pace with a fraction of the previous work-force to maximize profits for global shareholders while leaving communities decimated in their wake.



    Smaller mills cutting only what BC needs for its own use could employ more people than the super mills built for the export market 


    As a society we need to ask ourselves why putting 50,000 people out of work to maximize corporate profits was apparently acceptable, while saving the last of our old growth for far fewer job losses is not. Furthermore, we don’t even need to lose jobs. We need to go back to small mills and more diverse ownership, break up the monopsonies and monopolies that we no doubt suffer under, and reclaim some of those 50,000 jobs that were lost so the big companies could earn record profits. 

    The fact we cared nothing for those 50,000 lost jobs, and are red-faced in anger at the fact the head offices can’t decimate the last of our productive old growth, speaks to a fundamental intellectual and moral impoverishment amongst us. We ought to be red-faced in shame for not making a bigger stink about the gutting of our communities and the ripping off of public resources by out-of-control capitalism over the past 20 years, on the mistaken premise that that’s just “progress.” I suggest we take a good hard look at where progress has gotten us: denuded landscapes, red-listed species, shut down mills, ghost towns, and ever more unequal wealth distribution.

    James Steidle is a forest defender living in the Prince George area. He is the founder of Stop the Spray BC.

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    20-30 years ago most large forest companies had crews laying out cut blocks, timber cruising and surveys, all with pensions and benefits. Those jobs have been eliminated and contractors now do this work with higher profits and concentrated interests. The conversion of the industry to increased efficiency has eliminated jobs by buying off governments and communities but the benefit is shallow and short termed. With so much more to be lost as this money is concentrated in fewer hands one can see that trying to stem climate change through conservation will produce more angst and anger towards government decisions and will polarize communities more than ever before. These are desperate times and any science to justify conservation will just be met with blind anger and desperation because no one saw it coming and BC set the provinces small communities up to fail by not looking at the details and salivating at the idea of how much money could be made by concentrated interests. BC needs to remove this concentration or suffer the demise of hundreds of small communities.

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    Same for fishing,  as everyone knows when small trolleys and gillnetters plied the waters, everyone made enough. Enter the government backed million dollar sieners literally devastating genetic lines of salmon overnight. All the money flowed to the few at the top! Its always been wrong!

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    Over a decade ago my now wife and I were headed south on the Cassiar Hwy as the Right-of-Way was being cleared for BC's Northern Transmission Line. Somewhere south of Iskut we stopped in thick groves of Coastal forest just like those found much farther South.

    Amid the 100m wide clear cut ribbons were huge, and I mean huge, 50-plus meter long, 1.5-2.5m butt diameter, straight as arrow trees stacked like tents by enormous 40 tonne excavators.

    They were burn piles!

    We were told by the contractors that because of the distance and size of these trees that those "efficient" mills inland and further south couldn't handle that kind of timber and that the decision had been made to burn those giants with all the rest. 

    I guess when industry specializes and invests to such a narrow degree and those that were formerly regulators capitulate time and time again common sense gets lost. Pretty soon there are great piles of heaped biomass ready for burning, a "state of the art" mill run by robots and trailer park boys and leagues of golfers thousands of miles South collecting dividend cheques more concerned with Terrorists, or Covid or their Cosco membership renewal.

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