Optimism fading for coastal forest industry

Truck Loggers Association survey of mayors indicates nearly half aren't optimistic about the industry's future

Coastal communities are losing faith in the logging industry that once sustained them.

According to a survey of coastal mayors, only a quarter of them think the industry is managing B.C.’s forests properly, almost two-thirds feel it is in worse shape than it was decade ago, and a little over half are optimistic about its future.

Still, the executive director of the industry advocacy group that commissioned the survey is looking at its results as less of an indictment of the state of the industry and more of a clear indication of how important it is to the communities surveyed.

“It’s not a statement of losing faith in the industry. It’s a show of faith they know the importance of the industry to the community,” David Elstone said. “It’s related to economic opportunities, and, from the mayors’ perspective, it’s jobs.”

Released June 20 by the Truck Loggers Association, Community Perspectives on the Coastal Forest Industry surveyed the leaders of 27 traditionally forest-dependent communities and compared their answers to those given in a similar survey in 2004.

The comparison showed the number of respondents confident in the industry’s stewardship had dropped from 63 per cent to 26 per cent. Meanwhile, 62 per cent felt forestry was not as healthy as it was 10 years ago and the number of those optimistic about its future had dropped from 88 to 56 per cent.

Elstone said the results reflect the volatility experienced by TLA members, the small- and medium-sized businesses responsible for falling trees and hauling them out of the woods. In the time between surveys, more than 25 timber harvesting contractors declared insolvency.

“Contractors are leaving the industry in one way or another and that’s important,” he said. “You have to ask ‘why?’”

Port Hardy Mayor Hank Bood has noticed a major difference in the role forest companies have taken in his community since the economic crash of 2008.

“Before that they were major contributors in terms of contributing to the communities their employees work in,” Bood said. “Our success depends on who actually harvests the land. I’m not completely satisfied with what the current tenure holders are pushing back into my community, but they can address that. I know that they try. Hiring locals is a big thing.”

And that is where evidence of the industry’s importance lies, Elstone said. TLA members live, work and create jobs in coastal communities. If they aren’t able to succeed, communities feel the effect.

He said his members face an ongoing struggle in negotiating harvesting contracts with the larger companies that hold forest tenures.

“We are trying to point out that we are aligned with communities. Our position is contractor sustainability There seems to be a challenging relationship between us and the licensee.”

The survey was done voluntarily and electronically. It was distributed to the leaders of the 79 communities that the TLA considers its membership area and received a 34 per cent response rate. Qualicum, Parksville, Tofino, Ucluelet, Ladysmith, Comox and Lake Cowichan were among the north Island communities that did not take part.

Other findings included:

  • The number of mayors in favour of raw log exports remained about the same, about 62 per cent, compared to 60 per cent in 2004.
  • More than 70 per cent say the expansion of parks and protected areas has not impacted their communities.
  • A majority of leaders support and recognize the growing role of First Nations in the industry.

Not covered in the survey was the issue of a total ban on old growth logging endorsed by the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities in April, a ban industry leaders say would devastate the industry.

Bood said he hopes the report sends a message to the decision-makers that they aren’t doing enough. He said the province appears focused on getting what it can in terms of taxes and fees, while the industry is angling to maximize profits. What coastal communities get is of secondary importance.

“Communities are looking for more from both of them.”

Elstone acknowledged he is troubled by the large percentage of respondents questioning the stewardship of the forests. He said the TLA will investigate further to determine what that response means and what must be done to reverse that perception.

However, the industry is taking heart in the 86 support for the concept of “working forests” — a portion of the land base set aside specifically for forestry.

“The best way to create good jobs is to support your forest industry,” he said.

 

Labour drain a looming pain?

Right now, supply and demand is serving both employer and employee in the coastal logging industry.

But that might be short-lived.

Truck Loggers Association executive director David Elstone said the industry is well-staffed at the moment thanks to an influx of labour from the slumping Alberta oil patch.

But a reversal there coupled with an aging existing workforce and a lack of young people entering the industry could create a workforce crisis down the road.

The TLA projects 4,700 job openings between now and 2022, 95 per cent of them due to retirement.

“We know there are going to be challenges in the future,” he said.

Port Hardy Mayor Hank Bood said right now there are jobs in the forest industry, and young people interested in filling them.

A resident for more than 40 years, Bood has witnessed the ups and downs of a resource-based economy. More importantly for Port Hardy, there are jobs available in other sectors and the community is stronger for that diversity.

“Think that’s a good thing. Like I always say, the more spokes, the smoother the ride,” he said. “There is a lot better feeling on the north Island.”

“There are still young people looking for jobs in the industry, decent, good-paying jobs.”

However, Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay said more still needs to be done to attract young people to the industry.

“Most young people believe there is no career in forestry, but those who have joined the industry are astonished at what a good life they can create for their families and themselves.”

Follow me on Twitter @JohnMcKinleyBP

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