When pre­dic­tions come true

The Prince George Citizen - - Opinion - — Ed­i­tor-in-chief Neil God­bout

The hol­low­ing out of the B.C. In­te­rior and the demise of small towns ev­ery­where in the prov­ince, par­tic­u­larly those de­pen­dent on forestry, has been hap­pen­ing for nearly 30 years. It’s been a train wreck in slow mo­tion that has been well stud­ied, broadly pre­dicted by chief foresters past and present and thor­oughly an­tic­i­pated by in­dus­try and gov­ern­ments. Politi­cians and res­i­dents saw it com­ing, too, but have al­ways hoped for more time, a bit of luck or some un­fore­seen pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment that would avoid or at least de­lay the in­evitable.

The eradicatio­n of small towns is not a B.C. or even a Cana­dian trend but a world­wide phe­nom­e­non, a global migration of peo­ple and jobs to re­gional cen­tres and metropoli­tan ar­eas. B.C. is cer­tainly no stranger to ghost towns and some, like Bark­erville, have been turned into suc­cess­ful historic tourist at­trac­tions, but the pop­u­la­tion de­cline in ru­ral re­gions, com­bined with the cen­tral­iza­tion of in­dus­try and gov­ern­ment, re­tail, ed­u­ca­tion and health ser­vices, has sped up in re­cent years.

Even if the moun­tain pine bee­tle hadn’t swept through the re­gion start­ing 20 years ago, evolv­ing into the de­struc­tion of mas­sive stands of valu­able, ma­ture trees over the fol­low­ing decade, In­te­rior com­mu­ni­ties re­liant on the lo­cal sawmill for most of the good-pay­ing, pri­vate sec­tor jobs would still be in trou­ble.

The mod­ern­iza­tion of the for­est in­dus­try has changed ev­ery part of the process of turn­ing a tree into a con­sumer re­source, from sur­vey­ing and log­ging to milling and man­u­fac­tur­ing. Tech­nol­ogy has al­tered ev­ery part of the process, in­creas­ing ef­fi­ciency (that phrase is short­hand for pro­duc­ing more wood prod­ucts with fewer and fewer peo­ple) and re­duc­ing waste. Mills in Burns Lake and Prince Ge­orge de­stroyed by deadly saw­dust ex­plo­sions in 2012 were re­built but not as they were be­fore. They now can pro­duce as much or even more wood prod­ucts than they did be­fore but with a frac­tion of the em­ploy­ees.

Those tech­no­log­i­cal im­prove­ments have forced most small play­ers out of the mar­ket, with only a hand­ful of gi­ant cor­po­rate play­ers left dom­i­nat­ing the ma­jor­ity of the in­dus­try’s out­put. The re­sult, even be­fore this sum­mer of clo­sures and cur­tail­ments, has been the per­ma­nent shut­ter­ing of older, in­ef­fi­cient mills in com­mu­ni­ties close to the forests be­ing har­vested in favour of larger, mod­ern op­er­a­tions fed by trees hauled in by truck from hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres away.

It can’t be stressed enough that all of this was not only fore­seen but planned by com­pany lead­ers forced to quickly and dra­mat­i­cally change their busi­ness mod­els to com­pete in the global mar­ket­place and give them­selves a chance at long-term sur­vival. These com­pa­nies and the peo­ple who own and op­er­ate them made no se­cret of their ef­forts and warned politi­cians, em­ploy­ees and res­i­dents that tens of thou­sands of jobs would even­tu­ally dis­ap­pear, tak­ing with them the sus­tain­abil­ity of one-in­dus­try towns through­out the prov­ince.

Com­bin­ing in­fes­ta­tion, the steadily de­clin­ing availabili­ty of har­vestable trees with no im­prove­ment in sight for decades, tech­nol­ogy and global eco­nomic pres­sures with dev­as­tat­ing wild­fires and end­less trade dis­putes has brought B.C.’s for­est sec­tor to this mo­ment. Forestry will con­tinue to sur­vive in this re­gion and prov­ince, con­tinue to em­ploy thou­sands and con­tinue to con­trib­ute bil­lions to the econ­omy but with far fewer com­pa­nies and work­ers gen­er­at­ing less rev­enue in a much dif­fer­ent man­ner than was done in the past.

Sadly, politi­cians are us­ing these mo­ments for po­lit­i­cal gain, point­ing fin­gers of blame and fu­el­ing anger at the expense of dis­placed fam­i­lies. Provin­cially, both NDP and Lib­eral gov­ern­ments, along with com­mu­nity lead­ers, have known what was hap­pen­ing but were largely pow­er­less to pre­vent or even slow these forces work­ing both in­side and out­side of B.C.’s borders.

One tragic irony has been the on­go­ing soft­wood lum­ber dis­pute, with small, ru­ral Amer­i­can lum­ber op­er­a­tions con­vinced they could sur­vive if they could just stop those pesky Cana­di­ans dump­ing their cheap, gov­ern­ment-sub­si­dized lum­ber into the U.S. mar­ket. Those lum­ber re­gions in the Pa­cific North­west, the Atlantic north­east and the deep South are un­der­go­ing the same up­heaval be­ing seen in the B.C. In­te­rior.

What does that mean for re­gional hubs like Prince Ge­orge?

More on that to­mor­row.

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