After a devastating series of mill closures, can B.C.’s forestry industry recover?

Click to play video: 'Growing calls for government help for floundering forest industry.'
Growing calls for government help for floundering forest industry.
WATCH: There are growing calls for the provincial government to do something to help B.C.'s forest industry, which has been hit by a punishing series of mill closures and job losses. Jennifer Palma reports. – Sep 13, 2019

B.C.’s forestry industry is not having a good year.

Several pulp and sawmills in coastal, central and southern B.C. have seen curtailments and closures, putting thousands of workers out of a job and hundreds more looking at reduced shifts.

The past week has been particularly devastating. On Thursday, Tolko Industries announced its Kelowna mill would close indefinitely, affecting 127 employees. Ninety workers there had already lost their jobs after a shift reduction.

That came after the Teal-Jones Group said on Tuesday it is halting all coastal harvesting operations, putting up to 800 workers at risk.

Union president for United Steelworkers Local 1-423 Pat McGregor says part of the reason for the closure in Kelowna is low lumber market prices across North America.

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“Log costs are high,” he explained further. “We’re being told 75 per cent of the cost for the employer is getting the wood from the bush into the mill.”

WATCH: (Sept. 4) Critics questions closure of Maple Ridge sawmill

Click to play video: 'Critics questions closure of Maple Ridge sawmill'
Critics questions closure of Maple Ridge sawmill

The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development confirmed in a statement Friday that more than 4,000 workers across 27 communities have lost their jobs this year.

The ministry says the problems in the industry date back to the BC Liberal government, arguing the NDP has laid out a process to protect jobs.

But BC Liberal forestry critic and MLA for Nechako Lakes John Rustad says more could be done to save the industry, including changing the way stumpage fees are calculated in order to keep costs down, which other Liberals have suggested.

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“Government could also suspend the carbon tax or the employer health tax for the forest industry, to help bring down the cost structure to make us more competitive and allow us to operate us in this environment,” he suggested.

The ministry argues changing or lowering stumpage fees would create further trouble with duties being imposed by the United States, setting the industry up for trouble in the long run.

“We are looking at ways for stumpage to be more responsive to lumber prices, but a wholesale fiddling with the stumpage system, at this point, would be seen as really weakening our case in terms of potential subsidy accusations from the United States,” Minister of Forests Doug Donaldson said last month.

Destruction caused by wildfires and a severe mountain pine beetle infestation — both linked to global warming — have also created acute shortages of wood fibre in B.C. that will take decades to replace.

Four mills have closed across B.C. so far in 2019, sparking rallies and meetings from Kelowna to Mackenzie.

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WATCH: (June 11) B.C. sawmills laying off employees

Click to play video: 'B.C. sawmills laying off employees'
B.C. sawmills laying off employees

Several mayors of smaller communities that rely heavily on the industry have written to the federal government asking for help, to no avail.

The province has said it’s lobbying Ottawa for more EI and early retirement help for workers.

The trend has UBC Faculty of Forestry professor Gary Bull stressing big changes are needed for the industry to survive, including diversification.

“We can make bio-plastics, we can make bio-fuels, we can make bio-energy,” he said. “We can make really high-end, value-added products of a wide array.

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“I think the recognition is this time, there is no coming back in the same way as we used to in the past.”

But union leaders know change doesn’t come quickly, and are warning members to be prudent as they wait to meet with the province to discuss their concerns.

“We’re telling guys just to hold back on these big purchases, because your mill could be next,” McGregor said.

— With files from Megan Turcato, Simon Little and the Canadian Press

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