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Fort Nelson struggles to rebuild ‘devastated’ forestry sector

For the town of 3,900, there are real questions about the community’s survival

When a pair of Fort Nelson timber processing plants closed eight years ago, the town didn’t feel the impact right away. 

For many workers, finding employment in the booming Horn River natural gas play was relatively easy.

But with hundreds of oil and gas jobs wiped out by the economic downturn, the regional municipality’s plan to revitalize its timber sector is taking on new urgency.

“Right now, the forestry industry is just about devastated,” Mayor Bill Streeper said. “(But) the forestry died the same time the natural gas took right off, and a lot of people just switched over from one to the other.”

“That gas area peaked and it fell,” he added, “and we’re sitting now on some pretty sad times.” 

Before the collapse of the U.S. housing market in 2008, Fort Nelson was home to Canfor OSB and plywood plants that employed around 500 people, and enjoyed a reputation as one of the province’s most prosperous timber towns. 

Mike Gilbert, community development officer with the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, said the regional office still has a plaque from when Fort Nelson was named B.C.’s 2006 Forestry Capital. 

“As forestry petered out, oil and gas was on the upswing,” Gilbert said. “It took up the slack. But as that started to taper as well…our sustainability (as a community) became an issue.” 

For the town of 3,900, there are real questions about the community’s survival. According to district estimates, the Northern Rockies region lost 1,000 people since the last census—largely due to the oil and gas downturn. Gilbert hopes a revitalized forestry industry will help prop up the regional economy when oil and gas is down—and vice versa. 

In 2013, the region launched a Forestry Rejuvenation Project aimed at tackling the issues that led to the collapse in the regional forestry industry.

Those issues include transportation troubles and questions about the supply of labour, as well as lingering uncertainty over the softwood lumber agreement. 

The plan has had mixed results. 

On the one hand, Streeper is optimistic about the prospects of a community forest licence that would give the municipality control over 50,000 cubic metres of timber. That licence is currently being reviewed by the forests ministry, he said. 

But one of the biggest problems has been changes to the B.C. Forest Act, which no longer require timber licence holders to process wood in the area where it was harvested.   

That means much of the boreal forest logged around Fort Nelson is being processed in mills to the south. 

On Nov. 15, the regional municipality put out a news release criticizing the province’s forest tenure system. 

Changes to so-called mill appurtenancy provisions, as well as “failure” to enforce pulpwood agreements tying forest tenures to processing at specific mills is “dramatically impacting smaller B.C. communities such as Fort Nelson,” the region wrote. “It has rendered them collateral damage and threatens their economic sustainability.”

For Streeper, it’s a question of how resources benefit the communities where they’re extracted. 

“It’s a battle,” Streeper said. “Who is the owner of the resource, and how does that support different communities?”