At a time when the forest industry is reeling from the global economic crisis and a slowdown in new home construction there were signs of hope in Whistler last week as the resort hosted the annual B.C. Wood conference and Global Buyer's Mission.
The event typically attracts roughly 400 to 500 delegates each year, but this year's event was sold out at 700 delegates from more than a dozen countries and organizers were forced to turn people away.
Member of Parliament John Weston noted that the federal government contributed close to half a million to the conference from different agencies, but pointed to a statistic from conference organizers that every $1 spent to hold the conference resulted in roughly $40 in sales in 2008.
"That's a 40-fold return on our investment and that means jobs in this province and this riding," said Weston. "For me this is an example of what government can do best, helping entrepreneurs and businesses to help themselves. This is the definition of stimulus funding."
B.C. Forest Minister Pat Bell opened the buyer's mission with an honest but inspirational speech, acknowledging the tough times that the industry is facing as a result of the economy and mountain pine beetle, while also challenging British Columbia to take the lead in developing wood technologies in the future - such as writing software that allows architects to build bigger and more complex structures using wood.
The province will also encourage innovations in wood by introducing new legislation this fall that mandates that all building projects with public funding maximize their use of wood and other products generated in B.C.
"Structure, finishing, furnishing - wood will be used for all aspects of buildings to express to the world our commitment to utilizing wood," said Bell, drawing a round of enthusiastic applause from conference-goers. He also said the future of the industry is to move away from raw log exports and to start building products that can be sold around the world - which is B.C. Wood's mission.
That means continuing to move towards something the industry is calling "ecosystem-based management," where every cut block can be evaluated separately to determine how to harvest trees with the least environmental impact. In some cases that could mean helicopter logging, and in others variable retention logging where more trees are left behind.
"The same groups that were chaining themselves to trees 20 year ago were on a stage recently where they were telling the world that this is new standard (for forest management)," said Bell. "Once upon a time we believed that our forests were endless and that the industry would always be there, and that we'd never run out of wood, but now we know that's not true. We didn't anticipate things like the mountain pine beetle."