The Cheakamus Community Forest likely won't be affected by the latest dispute with the U.S. over softwood lumber, although one industry watcher estimated that the forest industry could be fined up to $400 million by the arbitration panel if they rule that the province is subsidizing the softwood industry.
Most of the current complaints revolve around pine beetle wood that has been salvaged from forests in the interior and purchased from the province at a stumpage rate far below the market price. Since much of the wood can be salvaged and sold, U.S. producers are arguing that the lower stumpage rates are the equivalent of a subsidy.
For our part, B.C. is arguing that the province is honouring its part of the softwood agreement, and that the full value of pine-beetle wood sold at auctions is reflected in those prices. As well, B.C.'s forestry industry has developed new technologies for harvesting and testing wood, making it possible to sell wood products that would be rated at a lower quality on international markets. As well, the beetle-killed wood can be sold to China without having to meet U.S. specifications.
"The irony behind the U.S.'s complaints is that since the Softwood Lumber Agreement came into force, U.S. lumber producers have actually increased their share of the U.S. market," said forests minister Pat Bell. "In the meantime, British Columbia will continue to develop the China market where we've seen exponential growth in recent years. Last year, for example, we almost doubled our lumber exports to China compared to 2009, which is helping to put people back to work in B.C. mills."
The trade dispute, while bitter, should not affect the Cheakamus Community Forest, which is co-owned by the Resort Municipality of Whistler and local First Nations. According to Tom Cole, a forester for Richmond Plywood - the forest's operating contractor - all of the wood harvested in the area is earmarked for Canada.
"(Richmond Plywood) has very few sales to the U.S., our main markets are Ontario and Quebec, Europe, and occasionally Japan," he said, adding that the wood from Whistler is specifically earmarked for domestic use.
"There are no log exports (from the Community Forest)... It's either going to our mill, or AJ (Forest Products), which is a big cedar mill in the Cheekeye Fan area. We have agreements with the Howe Sound Pulp and Paper, and agreements with other pulp mills."
In a broader scope, Cole says he is actually more excited about the forest industry's prospects that he has been in a long time, the softwood dispute notwithstanding.
"There's certainly some renewed optimism in the woods," he said. "We've been beaten down for so long, and now we have this demand in China and what looks like increased demand over the next two years or more. Hopefully were off the down cycle we've been on .... If the Americans ever come back to the table, I think it will be a good thing because we'll be focused on actual forest management and not just survival."
Some of the innovations are also favourable for forestry, including new technology in mills and discussions over the construction of biomass plants that would use waste wood to generate electricity.
"I've always wondered why Squamish wasn't the focal plant for a biomass energy opportunity," said Cole. "We have a fancy new highway, a rail line, water access and the transmission line, so it seems logical in my view. We've also got a municipal composter in Whistler that requires a great deal of biomass, so we can find a home for all the debris left behind (from forest harvesting)."
Cole said he took a representative from a Swedish forestry company on a snowmobile tour of operations a few years ago, and while the representative was impressed with the utilization of the forest she was also surprised to discover that wood slash is burned on the site. "They would never think of burning woodpiles," said Cole, "there's such a demand for biomass in Europe."
Richmond Plywood's plant is proof that biomass can work in B.C., with all of the plant's energy coming from biomass instead of natural gas. It was the most expensive re-investment in the plant in 56 years, said Cole, and now biomass is used to create steam energy to run lathes, drying facilities, rollers and other machinery.
As for wood in the region that's outside of the community forest, Cole says China is a more likely market than the U.S. for most of that lumber, as well as the local market with demand from mills across the Lower Mainland.
"A lot of neighbouring tenures will see that demand (from China), so that will support the loggers and wood products guys, and they're figuring out the domestic market which isn't a bad thing. I know we have 450 employees and they all show up for work every day, so we're doing something right."