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'Tragic': John Rustad says BC's resource, forestry sector in crisis

The leader of the Conservative Party of BC says the NDP government’s approach has created all kinds of chaos in the forest sector.

On Monday, John Rustad sat down with NowMedia to discuss the recent closure of Canfor’s Polar sawmill in Bear Lake, which was announced on Friday.

The company also announced it would be shutting down a production line at its Northwood Pulp Mill in Prince George and suspending a "planned reinvestment" in Houston.

Canfor president Don Kayne said timber harvest levels have dropped and the provincial government’s policies and regulation changes have impacted the company.

The company said this will impact 180 jobs at the Polar mill and 220 at the Northwood facility.

Rustad called the announcement “tragic.”

“When workers lose jobs, they're not going to be around. They're going to have to go find a job, work somewhere else,” he told NowMedia.

“So you lose your baseball coaches, you lose your hockey coaches, lose your volunteers, right? And you lose the spin off of the people working (and) supporting the forest sector.”

NowMedia then asked what Rustad thought about the impact these closures have on small, rural communities.

Rustad said communities like Bear Lake and Houston are “very dependent” on the forest sector and that the impacts will be felt elsewhere, particularly in the “spin off” jobs in places like Prince George.

“The government is saying it's because of the commodity cycle. In my riding alone, two million cubic meters a year is not being issued, permits are not being issued by BC timber sales,” Rustad said.

“That's six million cubic meters over the last three years that hasn't gone out. How do mills operate if they don't have wood?”

Rustad was re-elected MLA of Nechako Lakes in 2020.

He said the news was devastating and he could not understand why the NDP government is “throwing the average everyday worker under the bus.”

NowMedia then asked Rustad about his view of the management of the forestry sector.

<who> Photo Credit: 123rf

Rustad said that BC governments have allowed forests to grow older than they normally would historically and firefighting practices have impacted the health of the province’s forest.

“People have this idea that you know we need to preserve this old forest. Well, the problem is in most of the province, particularly through the interior and in the north, fire has been dominating the landscape for thousands of years,” he said.

“We've removed fire from the landscape. There's a whole bunch of things that need to change with regards to that, but nothing will work when you have a government that just (doesn’t) seem to understand the forest sector.”

He said the NDP government doesn’t seem to care about the forest sector, workers or “good forest management.”

Rustad said David Eby’s focus on “environmental votes” and ideology shows they don’t care about BC’s economy.

“They do not care about our forest sector, the backbone of so many communities across this province, and they're willing to sacrifice all of that just to try to get votes in the lower mainland,” he said.

“That is not a good government. That is not a government that we need in British Columbia.”

Earlier this year, Canfor said it lost $117.1 million in the fourth quarter of 2023.

<who> Photo Credit: Google </who> Canfor’s Polar sawmill in Bear Lake.

When Canfor announced the mill closure, BC’s Minister of Forests Bruce Ralston said he was disappointed by the decision and the impacts on those small northern communities.

“We will be there to support the workers’ families and communities impacted by this corporate decision,” Ralston said in a statement issued May 9.

“Workers shouldn’t bear the brunt of commodity cycles as they have been forced to for years. That’s why our government has been focused on stabilizing the sector.”

Ralson said the NDP government would continue their “work with the sector” through initiatives like the BC Manufacturing Jobs Fund and the Forest Enhancement Society of BC.

Those two initiatives led to investments in forestry-related facilities and support for the pulp industry, Ralston claimed.

“The forest sector is a long-standing and foundational part of our province. We will keep working to ensure it supports workers and communities,” he said.

Earlier this year, Premier David Eby announced that through the $180-million BC Manufacturing Jobs Fund (BCMJF), the NDP government was committing as much as $70.3 million to forest-sector transition and diversification across 50 projects.

Ebay said this would create and sustain over 2,500 jobs.

He said these investments were the “blueprint” to a stronger, cleaner economic future in BC.

“While workers and businesses in the forest sector have faced significant challenges over the past few years, there are tremendous opportunities out there in producing made-in-B.C. sustainable forest products,” said Eby in an April 12 statement.

“That’s why our government is working together with the sector to help them transition to high-value product lines that make the best use of every tree harvested, while creating and protecting good, family-supporting jobs.

However, Rustad said forestry is one of BC’s top industries and that the NDP government’s policies around forestry will continue to impact jobs, the economy and will lead to increased taxes and deficits.

With the upcoming election in mind, NowMedia asked Rustad what the Conservative Party of BC will do for the forestry industry.

Rustad said they will be putting out a more comprehensive forest policy in the coming months.

“The first thing we have to do is drive down our cost structure. British Columbia is the highest cost producer in North America. We have to be able to be competitive, so we have to bring our cost structure in place,” he said.

“The second thing we need to do is clean up the permitting process so that mills actually get wood so that these dying trees in the forest can actually be utilized for creating jobs (and) so that we can get those trees or get those forced forest lands rehabilitated.”

Rustad finished by saying that the province’s resource sector is in a crisis and things need to change in the provincial election in October.

To watch the full interview, click here.

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