As laid-off forest workers protested outside the B.C. legislature Tuesday, Finance Minister Carole James had little immediate assistance to offer for the struggling industry in her 2020 budget.
James’ third NDP budget contains a new $13 million fund for “economic development and revitalization” of the B.C. forest sector, hard hit by reduced allowable cut in the Interior and high harvest costs that have shut down logging on much of the B.C. Coast and Vancouver Island.
The budget for forests ministry operations for the fiscal year beginning April 1 is $844 million, up from $814 million. Provincial revenue from forest products is projected to go from $991 million this year to $867 in 2020-21.
“We’ve already started the hard work, but it still has to be done, and that means engaging everyone, including the people who are doing the awareness rally today,” James said, referring to forest workers gathered outside.
James described the $13 million fund as financing Forest Minister Doug Donaldson’s changes to wood waste utilization, and Premier John Horgan’s initiative to bring industry players together for better use of a diminished Crown timber supply.
“The long term is really the revitalization work. That’s just getting started,” James said. “That’s pulling together first nations, unions, businesses, bringing people together to talk about what we can do to revitalize the forest industry. The bio-economy, what can we do with the waste wood to make sure that we supply more support in our province to utilize that.”
Industry representatives says they support better collection and use of pulp logs and waste wood for pellet production, but at the moment, the cost of bringing out waste is twice as much as what they can expect to sell it for.
James referenced relief programs funded out of the current budget, which runs until March 31. They include a $40 million program over two years for retirement bridging of laid-off workers who are 55 or older. There are retraining programs for younger workers, and assistance offices have been set up in communities dealing with mill closures, including Clearwater, Fort St. James and Mackenzie.
In the Cariboo, hit by a string of mill closures, the last of the Forest Management Society of B.C.’s budget has been committed to provide jobs reducing wildfire risk around communities, with forest waste cleanup contracts near 100 Mile House and Barkerville.
James said her government’s long-term strategy includes a commitment to “wood first” in public construction projects, to promote the engineered wood technology that is being marketed in the U.S. and Asia.
The end of a record eight-month strike by the United Steelworkers against Western Forest Products is also good news, James said, referring to a provincial fund to help contractors keep their trucks and equipment from being repossessed by banks.