Coastal forest communities need a new deal

May 23, 2006

The downside of corporate concentration in BC’s forest sector is
writ large in the Vancouver Island community of Port Alberni, where
recent protests by community members and the intervention of people
like BC Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair, appear to have
finally got the provincial government’s attention.

The issue of immediate concern -- one shared by countless other
communities -- is log exports, which last year hit an astonishing 4.7
million cubic metres. Private timberlands around Port Alberni are so
quickly being denuded of trees that community water supplies are
threatened. Adding insult to injury, virtually all the trees leave BC
without ever running through a mill. And there are prospects for
increased exports ahead, with Vancouver Island’s biggest private
landowners -- TimberWest and Island Timberlands -- both pushing for
more, perhaps an additional 1 million cubic metres per year.

Under the circumstances, Forests Minister Rich Coleman’s belated
commitment to appoint a committee to review exports is better than
nothing, but just barely.

These days, Coastal sawmills are as rare a sight as the elusive
spotted owl. And today’s concentration of an increasingly small number
of mills in few corporate hands is certain to make them a rarer sight

Twenty years ago, forestry in Coastal BC was synonymous with two
letters -- MB, short for MacMillan Bloedel. In places like Port Alberni
MB was king, running sawmills, a plywood mill, and pulp and paper
facilities. But even with the company’s pre-eminent position in town,
there was still wider competition. Bill Routley, president of United
Steelworkers Union Local 1-80 in Duncan, recalls negotiations with four
major companies back then -- Doman, Fletcher Challenge, MB and Pacific
Forest Industries. Today, there’s one. It goes by the initials WFP, or
Western Forest Products.

Ironically, HR MacMillan himself -- the M in MB -- once famously
warned before a Royal Commission in 1956 that British Columbians would
rue the day when “the forest industry here consists chiefly of a very
few companies holding most of the good timber.”

Today, thanks to back-to-back corporate acquisitions in the waning
weeks of 2005, WFP controls nearly one in every two trees logged on
public forestlands on the Coast and virtually all public forestlands on
Vancouver Island. Under Coleman’s watch, thanks to Liberal forestry
reforms, neither WFP’s purchase of Cascadia nor its acquisition of
Canfor’s last coastal forest tenure, were subject to public review or

Upon acquiring Cascadia last November, WFP boasted of 10 sawmills in
its portfolio. But one of the mills in Ladysmith remains idle following
its shutdown last October. And while WFP has announced that it will
upgrade its Cowichan sawmill, there is widespread fear that another two
WFP mills are vulnerable to closure, with perhaps as many as another
700 jobs on the line.

What WFP has not commented on -- and Coleman is long overdue in
insisting that it do so -- is what, exactly, its intentions are. Right
now, WFP can log up to 7.7 million cubic metres of timber per year on
public forestlands. Its sawmills, however, only churn through about 4.6
million cubic metres of logs. That significant gap means there’s plenty
of room to agitate for more log exports, which is precisely what WFP,
other forest companies and local First Nations succeeded in doing as
recently as March, when Coleman’s ministry approved further exports on
the Mid Coast.

In a way, the approval makes sense for isolated coastal First Nation
communities that at present lack any meaningful local prospects to turn
logs into lumber. But it is a slippery slope.

As more mills close -- and for the sake of Port Alberni let’s hope
that WFP’s Alberni Pacific Division mill with its 400 employees is not
one of them -- local residents could find themselves facing increased
log exports from public lands on grounds that there are no local mills
to take the logs.

During its first term, the current government scrapped clauses
linking logging rights to the maintenance of specific mills. In essence
it said that social contract provisions were an undue drag on corporate
profits. Following that logic, we could ultimately have no mills in any

Surely it is time to revisit the issue. Surely it is time to insist
that companies make some reasonable investments in processing
facilities in exchange for the billions of dollars in timber our
government has turned over to them. Surely it is time government dealt
the public in, not out of the equation. Otherwise, we may soon
associate the letters WFP with something else entirely: What Forest

Ben Parfitt is resource policy analyst with the BC office of the
Canadian Centre For Policy Alternatives, and recent author of “Getting
More From Our Forests: Ten Proposals for Building Stability in BC’s
Forestry Communities,”
available at