Forests minister optimistic with state of industry

“We’ve brought the industry through one of the most difficult downturns in the industry, with the collapse of the U.S. housing market."

Steve Thomson

Steve Thomson

It’s a good time to be a forests minister in B.C.

Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, was in Cranbrook on Monday, Jan. 20, meeting with various industry stakeholders at the Forestry office. Thomson took time out to speak to the Townsman about a resurgence and positive turnaround in the industry in recent months.

Thomson said he was “very, very optimistic” about the state of B.C.’s forest industry these days, and believes the industry is on a strong road to recovery.

“We’ve brought the industry through one of the most difficult downturns in the industry, with the collapse of the U.S. housing market,” Thomson said. “And now with the work that we’ve done in terms of diversifying markets in China, Japan, the U.S. market is coming back. We’re seeing a significant strengthening in prices.

“There’s lots of optimism in the industry, lots of capital investment being signalled — even new capital investment. It’s important to recognize that even during the downturn the industry invested significant capital in the industry.

“I think coming in for next year we’ve got signal intentions of over $600 million in investment planned.”

Thomson said that as of the end of October, a new record had been set for sales to China. And the  softwood lumber agreement with the United States has also provided a new level of stability. That agreement has been extended through 2015.

Thomson said the sector is still facing some particular challenges — among them the “mountain pine beetle corridor” which is undergoing a difficult adjustment period as a result of declining timber sale. Thomson said review work is underway, and an additional inventory program has been announced as some of the measures intended to help these affected areas.

Late 2013 also saw numerous new deals between industry labour — the United Steelworkers — and employers like member companies of the Interior Forest Labour Relations Board (IFLRA) and its northern counterpart, the Council on Northern Interior Forest Employment Relations (CONIFER). The measure of labour peace is an added plus, Thomson said.

“What we want to focus on is moving forward without that being one of the pieces you have to worry about,” he said. “The biggest challenge we’re hearing from the industry is the ongoing shortage of skilled labour. We have to work with everybody in the industry — the Province, the companies, the unions, the contractor associations in making sure we have a coordinated plan to make sure we can fill those jobs.

“We know over the next number of years there’s going to be 25,000 new jobs in the industry. Those will come from the overall recovery in the industry, but also the demographics of an aging workforce. That’s really one of the most important areas we’re going to have to work with.”