Vast swaths of forest in British Columbia’s Fort Nelson region are in danger of being gobbled up to make low-value, climate-unfriendly wood pellets with the provincial government providing the public virtually no time to comment on the controversial plans, warn two conservation organizations and a public policy research institute.
The groups are urging the government to delay a critical decision that would allow the plan to proceed, consult widely with the public and give local First Nations and the non-Indigenous community in Fort Nelson substantially more powers to chart a new course for the region’s forests and crippled economy.
The call by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Conservation North and Stand.earth comes as details emerge about a proposed transfer of a forest licence that Canfor Corp. holds in the Fort Nelson region to pellet proponent Peak Renewables.
The transfer requires provincial government approval. It has given members of the public until just February 19 to submit comments. If the transfer proceeds, Peak proposes to build Canada’s largest pellet mill, which would be designed from the moment it commences operations to feed on whole trees, not wood waste.
“Wood pellet or biomass plants could become vacuums for BC’s last primary forests without an explicit commitment from the government and the province’s Chief Forester that this will not happen,” says Conservation North director Michelle Connolly.
“Our experience in the central interior has been that BC and the logging industry refer to primary and old forests as ‘residues, waste, inferior or low-quality’ to justify logging them. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The Fort Nelson region last had mills operating in town in 2008. When Canfor closed the mills that year, 600 people lost their jobs making plywood and oriented strand board. If built, the pellet mill would employ around 60 people or one tenth the previous workforce.
“The BC government has made a commitment to forest communities to support real value-added milling, generating good jobs while ensuring forests maintain ecological integrity in the long-term. Building new pellet plants sourced entirely from primary and old growth forests in no way aligns with that promise,” says Tegan Hansen, Forest Campaigner with Stand.earth.
Hansen adds that burning wood pellets emits more CO2 at the stack than does burning coal.
In new research published today, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says several elements of the pellet plan and related government policies are of concern:
Nearly 1.2 million cubic metres or roughly 30,000 truckloads of the region’s aspen trees would be consumed each year in the proposed pellet mill.
800,000 cubic metres of spruce trees would be logged each year as well and could be trucked out of Fort Nelson for milling in Fort St. John or points further south.
Recent provincial government-approved logging rates in the region would effectively double the rates recorded during Canfor’s last years of operation in Fort Nelson.
“This looks a lot more like value-subtracted, not value-added. Thirteen years ago 600 people worked in mills in Fort Nelson. The new plan would see logging rates double, yet manufacturing jobs would be just one tenth what they used to be when those mills were running,” says Ben Parfitt, a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “That’s neither a recipe for long-term ecological health nor economic wellbeing.”
Parfitt says the provincial government has a unique opportunity to try something new in the Fort Nelson region. Two years ago, it granted the Fort Nelson First Nation and the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality a community forest licence to jointly manage. But the licence only pertains to about one tenth of the current allowable annual cut in the region’s forests.
“It’s time to think big. Why not turn the entire Fort Nelson Timber Supply Area over to the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in the region and let them determine what is in their long-term best interests? The province’s resource industry policies have been a spectacular failure to date both in the forestry and natural gas sectors in Fort Nelson. The people of the region deserve a lot better.”
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is an independent, non-partisan think tank that researches social, economic and environmental justice issues.