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BC’s logging industry is using mill closures as a political tool in its fight against regulation

Closure announcements are a core component of a political strategy designed to influence the government’s future decisions

Economic CrisisEnvironmentCanadian Business

Timber harvesting in British Columbia. Photo from iStock.

Two narratives about BC’s disappearing forests and logging industry have made national news over the last few months. On the one hand, headlines report that the province’s NDP government, under the new leadership of David Eby, is finally getting serious about protecting old growth. On the other, we read that the industry is on the verge of collapse as sawmills shut down in rural, industry-dependent parts of the province—due primarily to a lack of available wood.

The latter of these stories has some truth to it: BC’s “fibre supply” in indeed shrinking for a number of reasons, including both the century-long mismanagement of the province’s forests and the more recent short-sighted response to the mountain pine beetle epidemic.

But the coincident timing of the announcements—the mill closures and the government’s plans to improve the sustainability of BC’s logging industry (what activists call “talk and log”)—suggests that logging companies aren’t just responding to market conditions. They’re sacrificing workers and communities as a political threat designed to scare the government out of implementing any meaningful new regulations.

It’s helpful to look at what the industry is telling us here.

In investor materials, Canfor, West Fraser, and other major operators in BC all identify potential regulation as a risk that could limit fibre supply in the future. Canfor’s annual reports consistently raise the spectre of Indigenous sovereignty as a threat, highlighting BC’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act and recent legal decisions like Yahey v. British Columbia, the cumulative effects case that the Blueberry River First Nation fought and won. They also cite former Premier John Horgan’s old growth deferral plan (which has yet to be fully implemented) as a potential hit to future fibre availability.

But what’s key is they identify these as risks and uncertainties, not already existing problems. This is important for two reasons. First, it means that regardless of what is claimed by industry representatives, escalating environmental regulation is not the driving factor behind the mill closures. And second, it means that these companies recognize that future access to timber depends on a politically mediated open question: whether the government will actually implement regulations that significantly limit their operations.

Which brings us to why the industry is announcing so many closures just a year removed from posting record profits. The announcements are a core component of a political strategy designed to influence the government’s future decisions. Of course, one should recognize that falling lumber prices, driven mostly by rising interest rates and the impact that is having on new construction in North America and Asia, is a major economic headwind facing most logging companies. Expected reductions in annual allowable cut in the wake of the mountain pine beetle-induced logging frenzy is another.

But the fact that we are seeing this flurry of closure announcements at the same time as a new premier is announcing his intent to pursue forest policy changes is no coincidence. The industry is sending signals precisely because these stacked closure announcements, in aggregate, make a national news story that can easily be cast as a direct result of the NDP government’s intent to pursue policy reforms that will impact logging.

These announcements also stand on their own as effective tools for getting the media to uncritically repeat corporate propaganda, spreading the message that government overreach is driving mill closures. And they serve as a shot across the bow aimed at the BC NDP itself: Horgan himself once said that the industry had leveraged “capital strikes” against past NDP governments. Shuttered mills act as a warning about what industry could do if the province seriously pursues new regulation.

While the companies themselves generate buzz through synchronized closure announcements, industry trade associations are pursuing complementary media strategies. In the latest issue of Truck Logger BC, published quarterly by the BC Truck Loggers Association, an industry executive said, “We need an ongoing stream of stories about how we care for the forests and the timber harvesting land base.” According to the article’s author, “industry leaders” agree, and are “unanimous in their commitment to funding efforts to invest in the kind of marketing activities needed to shift the narrative.”

Industry ads are everywhere, often using the relatively new “sponsored content” model where advertising content is dressed up as reporting and published alongside real journalism with only a small label distinguishing it. And industry friendly columnists like Vaughn Palmer—employed by industry friendly corporations like Postmedia—are writing articles explicitly connecting Eby’s NDP government with the mill closures.

Conservationists and progressive media are failing to meet this head-on, and as a result, are ceding ground to the industry’s preferred narrative. Most responses have focused—not wrongly, I should say—on the ecologically and economically unsustainable nature of BC’s forestry policies over the last century. That’s an important part of the story, but it’s not the whole story, and we need to bring attention to this blatant exercise of corporate power.

The industry knows it’s “running out of trees,” as Ben Parfitt put it in The Tyee. That reality can’t be changed, not even by stripping away what little protection our forests do have. But at the same time, companies are trying to maximize profits by squeezing the remaining value out of the region’s failing ecosystems—exerting political power through synchronized mill closures, media campaigns, lobbying, and regulatory capture.

Is it important to highlight how BC’s forest policy (and logging industry) created the situation that is now playing out? Absolutely. But doing so without also identifying how industry is taking advantage of economic turbulence to lobby against new regulations allows them to proceed unchallenged—right up until the last tree is cut.

Nick Gottlieb is a climate writer based in northern BC and the author of the newsletter Sacred Headwaters. His work focuses on understanding the power dynamics driving today’s interrelated crises and exploring how they can be overcome. Follow him on Twitter @ngottliebphoto.

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