Friday, May 16, 2008

Government stumbles badly on forest industry

The Liberals are making a mess of the forests file, politically and practically.
It's painful to watch Forest Minister Rich Coleman bluster in the legislature.
And it's surprising. In their second term, the Liberals have avoided getting hung up on ideological positions that leave them looking uncaring or inept.
Not on this issue. There's a disaster going on in the forest industry and the communities that depend on it. Mills are closing across the province, many of them permanently. That Bruce Springsteen lyric - "These jobs are going boys, and they ain't coming back" - is sadly apt.
The industry has shed about 13,000 jobs in the last year. In the same period, the economy has added about 70,000 jobs, so there are opportunities.
But the people being booted out of the forest industry aren't necessarily at the front of the line to get those jobs. And the plunge from an income of $60,000 a year to $25,000 is difficult.
Vonsider Mackenzie, a beautiful town of some 4,500 people, about two hours north of Prince George. In January, AbitibiBowater closed two sawmills and a paper mill. Those closures threw 325 people out of work. Now the Pope and Talbot pulp mill has closed shut. Another 260 people with no idea when, or where, or if, they would work again
In less than six months, 585 good, well-paid jobs were gone - about 20 per cent of the town's workforce.
Bad news for stores. People are spending as little as possible. If families start leaving, one of the two elementary schools could be threatened. The town, deprived of property taxes from the pulp mill, has to start looking at the rec centre budget.
And those people who have no jobs are trying to figure out where to go and what to do. Do you even list your house, when sellers outnumber buyers 10 to one?
The job losses in Mackenzie over the last five months are the equivalent of something like 220,000 layoffs in Greater Vancouver. That kind of economic and human catastrophe in the Lower Mainland would get some major government action.
But the Liberals have basically been spectators as the forest industry unravelled since they were elected.
Coleman is right. There are tough problems beyond any government's control. The U.S. housing market has collapsed. The Canadian dollar was worth 90 cents U.S. not a year ago; now the currencies are more less equal in value. That factor alone means producers are getting 10-per-cent less for their products than they did a year ago.
Those are significant factors. But Coleman seemed too much like he was making excuses.
After setting out all the problems in the legislature, demanded the Opposition "Quit selling false hopes over there."
Which sounded much like the government writing off the industry, and the families and communities that depend on it.
Coleman tried to recover. The government rushed an announcement of the ways it would spend $129 million in forestry aid from the federal government over the next three years. He quoted analysts who said things should get better in 18 months.
It's a tough sell. The government has appeared disinterested in the forest industry. There have been a lot of announcements and plans, but not much action.
As those 325 people in Mackenzie were losing their jobs in January, Premier Gordon Campbell announced a forestry roundtable. It seemed a bit like a cruel joke. The roundtable has yet to report.
Meanwhile, Coleman has handed Vancouver Island forest companies breaks worth hundreds of millions of dollars, because they asked for them. The result has been to free what was protected forest land for real-estate development.
The government has allowed increased raw log exports to protect jobs in the woods, accepting the damage to B.C. mills.
It looks like the government has just decided the industry's future is beyond its ability to influence.
Footnote: Expect a lot more questions for Coleman in the last days of this legislative session. The New Democrats believe he's much more interested in the housing side of his portfolio than forestry. And expect critics to compare the lack of new provincial money for forestry with the plan to spend a bundle on a new roof for BC Place stadium in Vancouver.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

The United Steelworkers report that 'at least 46 wood processing operations have closed since 2001, with a loss of 20,000 BC jobs'. - May 2, 2008.

The death of forestry in BC predates the US housing meltdown by many years.

It seems that raw log exports will be all that is left of a once proud industry.

Anonymous said...

"A record bull market in lumber is on its way but there's only one catch for B.C.'s beleaguered sawmilling industry: it's still at least two years away, says one of the industry's top researchers." - Vancouver Sun, May 16, 2008.

Two years? Isn't that the amount of time that a business must be closed in BC before automatic union decertification happens?

How curious.

Anonymous said...

Are you completely oblivious to the massive decline in th US housing market and the huge increase in the Canadian dollar ? Fact is you can have all of the fibre supply out there but without a market for it you will not have a viable industry. Government bailouts have been proven to be ineffective and wasteful of tax payers dollars and yet we get this gibberish from Wilcocks.

I seriously cannot believe you continue to get paid for writing this drivel. If you cannot be objective and realize the realities of the International market at the very least one would hope you could find some other topic you could be objective about. Your articles for the past 6 months continue to disappoint for a lack of research and effort. Your readership demands better; either that or retire.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Paul. You've attracted the notice of one of the 200 OIC appointed media monitors, who posted here at 1025. Either that or Rich Coleman himself.

Anonymous said...

What our friend at 10:25 chooses to ignore is that we have a Liberal government that boasts about how it alone is responsible for a strong economy. Then it says it can't do anything about the forest industry bleeding to death. Can't have it both ways. Either their economic geniuses who are deliberately killing the forest industry or the economy is out of the hands of the provincial government.

Either way, in what world is it acceptable for a minister to shrug his shoulders as tens of thousands of well-paid jobs vanish? It would be far better for the minister to at least try and fail than for him to do absolutley nothing.

Anonymous said...

In response to 10:42 I live in the Interior and am not some Victoria lacky. I am only trying to point out that it is naïve and irresponsible to ignore the rising Canadian dollar an crippled US Housing market when looking at this troubled industry. Not to mention previous Government bailouts have also floundered; yet another rpoint ignored by Wilcocks

It is also disappointing that Wilcocks makes no mention of the Pine Beetle affects either. To 10:49; yes I agree for the government to single handedly boast and take credit for the other economic success is equally as naïve and misleading; however I expect more from Wilcocks; it is his job as a journalist to tell both sides of the story; something he has massively failed to do here. That is my only point.

Gazetteer said...

It might also be naive an irresponsible to ignore that extra 15% that gets slapped on most things wooden going Stateside these days because the SLA.

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DL said...

Sure the pine beatle is a serious problem, sure the canadian dollar upsets some US companies, and sure because the house building south of the border exists, is no reason for a Minister to say he can and will do nothing.And do exactly that. The money for some basic relief is mostly federal. Coleman has made an ass of himself with his bluster. The critic has a much better understanding of the situation that the guy who keeps insulting him. The government sees thousands losing their livelyhood, towns will lose school as familes move away. Oh another round table is doing the rounds.
Corky Evans who is also from the interior said. He was for many years an independent loggger. There are seven left in his riding. Who goes first Them or Coleman? Corky was so mad he was shaking. Coleman was smart ass as usual as he did his usual act. Hell 400 million overrun in one building is OK. Loss of jobs, well long as it's not Liberal MLA's jobs. Poor BC. asure there will be a recovery but it' sgetting to be time for BC ministers to go find other customers. The US will continue to try to block Canada sale of lumber.

Anonymous said...

Yo, 11:16
The pine beetle has been the best short-term thing for forestry in the Interior. The mills were running full bore for the past four years. The beetle has not hurt the mills one bit, not yet. The falloff from the beetle won't happen for a few more years.

Anyway, nobody expects in these times that the industry would be expanding. There were bound to be some aftershocks from the US market. But it's just not acceptable for the minster to say he can't do anything. Why bother having a minister at $150K/yr if he's just there to turn the lights off?

Anonymous said...

I suppose the question should be; what can and should be done? Bailouts have already proven to a waste of taxpayer dollars. Anyone who suggests banning raw log exports has little clue how that segment of the industry actually works. Even if the government gave away free TFL’s the fibre is of little value without a buyer and right now that buyer is the US and they are simply not buying. What does that leave ? A Round table and transition programs. The roundtable is both an insult and a joke. And the transition programs are, we are told underway.

I would like to hear from anyone; including Mr. Know-it-all critic Wilcocks what the answer is here ? So far I have heard nothing but lame low level political posturing; hence why I am disappointed in Wilcocks for stopping to the same level. Let’s not forget the Mills in Alberta and Saskatchewan are also being shut down as well over the past two years for the same real reasons why our mills are being shut down. To suggest this is solely political fodder is as naïve as it is erroneous and I expect better more objective reports from Mr.Wilcocks.

Dale Carnegie said it best “Any fool can criticize and most do” I believe as of late that comment applies to Mr. Wilcocks rather well.

Jeff Barkley said...

Perhaps thinking about the future would help. How about spending a few hundred million a year on reforesting the clearcuts with a variety of species of trees, instead of the lame "natural reforestation" (just leaving them denuded and hoping "nature" will fix it)? How about requiring the timber companies to provide jobs in the areas that are being cut (like before the BC Liberals threw small communities under the wheels of a bus)? How about building new tree farms to replace the ones closed and "privatized" by the BC Liberals? How about maintaining decent paying jobs in the hospitals of the smaller towns, instead of "privatizing" the labour and inserting "middlemen" down in the large cities that collect the difference between decent union wages and the $9 per hour "working slaves" in the smaller towns. How about creating an infrastructure that promotes good paying jobs for tourism in the remote areas, instead of more working poor with giant corporations the only ones benefitting? There are lots of things the government could do to help these towns and our province overall. There is no need to sit on our hands and shrug our shoulders, blindly accepting another "downturn" in this or that industry.

Do you really think clean air and forests have no value than to be clearcut for raw log exports or "quick buck" real esate deals?

Thanks for your valuable article Paul. The right-wing "fill my pockets with money at any cost", "decent paying jobs should be eliminated", except my own, need to try thinking long term and stop being shills for people who don't care about BC, don't care about small towns, don't care about good health care, don't care about decent education, and don't care about THEM. They only care about their very own personal "bottom line" and the minute it is to their advantage they will throw the poster that is now their shill under the wheels of a bus with the rest of us....

Anonymous said...

Jeff,

I don’t think it is fair to suggest that elected MLA’s don’t care. Not that people like Wilcocks will ever tell you; but being an MLA is not all the sitting around doing nothing that some suggest it is. As far as your forestry suggestions go, the government recently did announce a multi-million re-forestation package (again not mentioned by Wilcocks) and from my understanding more varietals of seedlings are being explored. I do think that is a good suggestion though.

As far as the local processing requirements; in order for mills to be efficient and competitive they need to consolidate; it would be no more efficient to have a mill in every community than it would be a hospital; your other suggestion. And keep in mind where I live even the rural hospitals still around many of them are in crises mode because they cannot even find the doctors to work at them. Both the Kootenays and places like Princeton have this serious problem.

And yes; to answer your other question; I do think that clean air and forests have value; even more so as we enter the era of carbon credits. I believe part of why the government is investing in so much re-forestation (announced a few weeks back) is not just because of Pine Beetle and the crises in the forest industry but also so the government can boast that they have neutralized their carbon footprint (offsetting government travel and things like that) but keep in mind the government is already doing this.

I don’t believe that the government is sitting down doing nothing. The government; much like any objective person is recognizing the challenges created by the US Housing market crash and strong Canadian dollar; something that obviously the NDP refuses to do for political reasons but I have no idea why Wilcocks stoops to the same political level. Read Hansard and I have heard the government announce all kinds of different ideas.

-Employee transition programs
-re-forestation
-potential wood waste (pine beetle) bio-mass energy programs
-various rural investment trust worth hundreds of millions
-infrastructure upgrades
-expansion of community forest programs first introduced by the NDP

Will that be enough ? Doubtful. But to suggest nothing is being done (while completely expected form the NDP’s perspective) is completely irresponsible form a journalistic perspective; hence my continued disappoint in Wilcocks for not doing his job. Have mistakes been made ? I would submit yes they have.

-Allowing some TFL’s to be removed from the Crown was in my opinion a mistake; although the CBC did have some UVIC professor on a month or so ago and he said that some of these TFL’s were private in the first place so the government in some cases had no choice. Either way I disagree with that practice.

I do appreciate your taking the time to offer some ideas; and I also do not agree with privatization of the HEU in our hospitals either; I believe that was a huge mistake as well; however it is not forestry related.

I would like to hear form Mr.wilcocks why he is ignoring what has been done and why he does not state the changes in the industry and profile why taxpayer funded bailouts do not work. I feel like I am someone who really does pay attention and it seems to me like Wilcocks is obviously not; not like he used too at least.

Jeff Barkley said...

"I don’t think it is fair to suggest that elected MLA’s don’t care. Not that people like Wilcocks will ever tell you; but being an MLA is not all the sitting around doing nothing that some suggest it is." Funny, I don't recall mentioning MLA's, but since you bring it up, what about the lazy useless BC Liberal MLA's that took a nice big raise in pay and then don't even have a fall sitting? What about the BC Liberal MLA's that are so fat and comfortable they feel justified in using closure to pass bills rather than spending the time to present them and debate them in the legislature? What about those things shows any commitment to improving the lot of forestry workers? I think it shows only a commitment to making sure they don't have to sit and answer questions about corruption within the BC Government.

You mention "the government recently did announce a multi-million re-forestation package ". Again, a tiny amount by comparison to the money being spent for a new roof for BC Place. This government aided and abetted the forest giants in a complete rape of the provinces forests and then, when they MUST do SOMETHING, throw a few trinkets back. Thats not long term planning for the future, its simply POLITICAL crisis management to try to bolster their very own futures.

Your statement "in order for mills to be efficient and competitive they need to consolidate" is merely an "off the shelf" corporate smokescreen. If you follow that logic you will quickly see that you would only have one forest company (the one with the most money), and one mill (the one with the lowest costs and highest productivity, which today would be in China with workers enslaved and living in dumps. No health care for those workers, no saftey standards to protect them from falling into a chipper, etc). That is the stuff of true Corporate speak, where only the dollar is important, with no thought about the social, environmental, and human cost. Its interesting to note that for the better part of a century we DID have mills in those small towns, providing local jobs for decent communities.

You mention Carbon credits....I just can't pass that one up. Carbon trading is one of the biggest scams ever created. It is no more than a shell game, turning pollution into a "commodity", to be traded on a glorified stock exchange. You can spin it however you want. Perhaps you would like to view it as trading "not polluting". You take something we have, such as a need to reforest, that we are already doing (at least we DID, before the BC Liberals) and create a "credit" for those actions that can be traded with a company or entity that wishes to do something that is a negative for our environment. "Look! We are saving the world!", but the real effect is that you justify the creation of yet another polluter, and things get worse and worse. As long as you keep this little ponzi scheme going, the public is kept in the dark, believing you are helping.

Its pretty obvious that we don't share many political views, but I do detect an underlying desire to improve the lot of small forest communities in BC and hope that, at some point, you see the error of accepting the corporate backed, BC Liberal propaganda at face value. Have a great day and enjoy the sunshine!

Anonymous said...

.
What is this, the corner of hell reserved for wannabe ENRON billionaires? People who missed their chance with ENRON but are still a la mode?


B.C. mills were closing (we were told) because they couldn't get logs. So the B.C. forest industry exports raw logs.

Now B.C. paper mills buy chips from Washington State.

Bail-outs are bad? Who mentioned bail-outs? Besides, bail-outs of what?

B.C. was a happier place when there were little family-owned sawmills all over central and northern B.C. But no, "efficiency experts" squeezed them out of existence. Check out Ray Williston, Minister of Forests in the WAC Bennett's Social Credit government. In the name of "efficiency", he invented clear-cutting. Fool.

Recently someone who understands these things told me that it isn't global warming, it's clear-cutting which provided the essential conditions for Mountain Pine Beetle to become epidemic.

Seems to me we'd be doing a very fine thing by (1) preparing a variety of improved seedlings for reforestation, and (2) getting these devastated tracts of B.C. forest land re-planted for the future.

Thanks, Paul.

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Anonymous said...

Carole James and the NDP said they will rip up the Softwood lumber agreement. That will save be 15%!

And then the NDP has bought mills like the Ocean Falls pulp mill and Skeena Cellulose.

When the NDP gets in they will buy the mills to make sure that they keep operating. That's the best solution.