Rough times in B.C. coastal forest industry is chance for sector to reinvent itself, says head of Coast Forest Products Assn.

CAMPBELL RIVER, B.C. , August 19, 2008 () – Rough times for forestry are a chance for the industry to reinvent itself, says Rick Jeffery, president and CEO of the Coast Forest Products Association.

“We understand Campbell River’s going through a rough spot. It’s really difficult times,” he said. “We’re closing some things down, but the stuff we’re keeping is the stuff we’re going to build the future on.”

Jeffery spoke to city council this week about the state of coastal forestry and took time before his meeting to speak with the Mirror.

He was blunt – the coastal forestry industry is in terrible shape. Mills have closed, people are losing their jobs and demand for wood products is low.

“It’s the worst market that we’ve ever seen,” he said. “The industry has shut itself down, curtailed itself to react to the market.”

It’s bad all around the world, he added. House-building has slowed in the U.S. and China only seems interested in low-grade lumber.

Newspapers are using less newsprint as they transition to the Internet. In general, there’s too much product and not enough demand.

That’s why the industry is shrinking, he said, and why the Elk Falls pulp mill is shutting down in November, putting 440 people out of work.

“This global contraction has meant less economical fibre for the pulp mill,” he said.

It’s strange that on an island full of trees, the mill can’t find enough economical fibre to operate. The problem, Jeffrey said, is that once you factor in the costs of cutting pulp logs, transportation and chipping, it’s just not worth it, given that profit margins are slim even when there’s an easy fibre source.

That’s one example of how the forestry business is complex, and tied to a bigger global market. And there’s no easy way to fix it.

“There are no silver bullets, single sayings that can capture the complexity of the business,” Jeffrey said, adding with a wry grin, “I can’t believe how hard it is to take round things and make rectangular things out of them!”

Jeffrey has 25 years of experience in the forestry industry, starting as a forester. Now he’s the head of an association representing coastal forestry companies which is trying to make sure they have a bright future.

The association’s new message is all about climate change.

“There is an opportunity for B.C. to be a supplier of choice for environmentally-friendly products,” he said.

Climate change is related to the amount of carbon (greenhouse gases) in the atmosphere. Wood is carbon-based, but has a neutral impact on the atmosphere, he explained. When carbon-based energy sources such as oil and gas, which have been stored underground for up to millions of years, are extracted and burned they add a new imbalance to the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere.

In contrast, trees collect and store carbon dioxide, which is released in a natural cycle when they die and rot, or burn. The trees’ carbon cycle has continued naturally for millennia – it’s the influx of “new” carbon material from oil and gas which has created an imbalance.

A house built from wood is a “carbon sink,” Jeffrey said, because it stores carbon for the life of the house. It’s more environmentally-friendly than stone or brick houses, and an average wood-framed house stores the same amount of carbon as one car’s emissions for five years, he said.

B.C. needs to sell itself around the world as a supplier of climate-change-friendly wood products, and sell the benefits of wood-frame houses in countries which use different house-building materials. B.C. also needs to emphasize its forest practices.

“We have the most stringent forest management standards in the world,” Jeffrey said. “It’s changed 180 degrees since I started.”

Jeffrey is optimistic the coastal forestry industry can adapt and survive.

“We’re really confident that when the market begins to turn the industry will be in a good place to capitalize on it,” he said.

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