COLUMN: Forestry no longer close to top of B.C.’s economy

Our reactions to a forestry downturn reflect the past, not the present

Many of us grew up in an era when everyone knew someone who worked at a lumber or pulp mill, or drove a logging truck, or wielded a chainsaw in the woods.

It wasn’t long ago that B.C. was so synonymous with logging that even Monty Python could joke about “the mighty rivers of British Columbia” in the lumberjack sketch. If you knew nothing else about B.C., you knew it was where men in plaid cut down big trees.

Up into the 1980s and early 1990s, even suburban communities like Langley, Surrey, and Maple Ridge had shorelines dotted with mills.

Remember the old Interfor mill in Fort Langley? Remember how Fort Langley used to be a sort of quaint little village that had a couple of museums, but was still largely a blue-collar town?

Those days are fading fast, and the recent provincial budget shows how much B.C.’s economic relationship with forestry has transformed over the space of a single generation.

Forestry is unquestionably in crisis right now, with mills shutting down, a debilitating labour dispute just ended, and low lumber prices and allowable cuts weighing on the whole industry.

The government’s response has been decidedly mixed.

But if it were any other non-resource industry that was in this kind of trouble – if there was a slump in software or mass layoffs at a couple of retail chains – you wouldn’t see the kind of breathless media coverage the forestry crisis has received.

We still think of British Columbia as somehow grounded in forestry. And while it’s a big industry, it’s not the biggest, and it hasn’t been in quite a while.

Go back to 1991 – the earliest year for which numbers are available from BC Statistics – and 97,000 people were employed in forestry, mills, and forestry support activities. In 2017, that was down to 51,793, down to barely more than half its previous total.

Meanwhile, B.C.’s population in 1991 was 3.3 million. Today’s population is five million. Forestry is an ever smaller portion of an ever larger economic pie.

Population increases in B.C. year-over-year have been running at more than 70,000 people, a historic high.

That’s more people than even work in the industry, coming to this province every year for several years running. It’s jobs being created in homebuilding, manufacturing, technology, education, tourism, and retail, and countless other jobs that have nothing to do with forestry.

This is, in many ways, a good news story. B.C.’s unemployment remains low, and the economy is far more diversified than when it was a three-legged stool based on forestry, fishing, and mining. When the forestry industry caught a cold in the 1970s or 1980s, it was enough to sicken the entire economy.

Now, the worst crisis in decades is hitting many communities and shops hard – but it isn’t devastating the whole of the province. The forestry industry needs help, but it’s not the jobs driver it once was.

BC legislatureBC politicsColumnColumnisteconomyforestryLangleyOpinion

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Environment Canada has issued a snow warning for the Kootenays on Friday. File photo
Environment Canada issues snow warning for Friday

Two-to-10 centimetres is expected to fall

Fernie’s Snow Valley Lodging allows the mountain love stories to continue. (Photo Contributed)
Ski-bum love: Shred Kelly’s Mountain Town Love Story Contest kicks off

The competition invites both tales of heartwarming romance or debauched misadventure

Where a five-point bull elk shot in a bow-only area near Sparwood. (Photo contributed by Conservation Officer Service.)
Conservation Officers seek info on bull elk shot in bow-only area

The five-point bull elk was shot near Sparwood on Oct. 18

The most recent council meeting was streamed via Zoom on Oct. 20. (Soranne Floarea/ The Free Press)
District of Sparwood revisits support for no-cost contraception

Representatives from Sparwood Contraception Access Advocates brough the matter back to council

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry presents modelling of COVID-19 spread in B.C., March 25, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. sets another COVID-19 record with 203 new cases

up to 1,766 active cases in B.C., two more deaths

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
British Columbia man dies during ski trip near glacier west of Calgary

Kananaskis Public Safety and Alpine Helicopters responded around 2:30 p.m.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, following a week-long break for the House of Commons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
One crisis after another for Trudeau since last federal election one year ago

It has been a year of unprecedented calamity and crisis

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Rio Tinto Alcan’s aluminum smelter at Kitimat competes against producers in the Middle East and Russia that have no carbon tax. (Rio Tinto)
B.C. carbon tax highest in Canada, export industries unprotected

B.C. NDP, B.C. Liberals say they’re looking at exemptions

(Pixabay)
Vancouver teacher suspended after swearing, touching students and complimenting underwear

McCabe touched students, including rubbing their backs and necks, touching their hair and hugging them

Jack Vellutini, 100, is still making sweet music. Photo: Submitted
Music stirs memories as Trail serenader nears 101st birthday

Jack Vellutini gave his brass instruments to Trail up-and-comers so the legacy of music can live on

BC ELECTION
B.C. political leaders reflect on rural health care as election looms

NDP leader John Horgan, BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson talk health care priorities in the Kootenays

Most Read