It’s a cacophony inside the East Fraser Fiber Mill in Mackenzie, B.C., as a giant metal turnstile spits out bits and pieces of lumber.
The wood tumbles onto a conveyor system where workers and robots grade it before sending it into whirling saw blades. The pieces are then glued together to create two-by-fours and other lumber destined for markets in the United States.
Mill owner Pat Glazier isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, walking the shop floor and talking to workers.
“We’ve got the best employees in the world,” he says as he grabs a piece of scrap material off the production line.
The problem is he’s running out of raw material needed to keep the plant north of Prince George running.
“We were running three shifts, then it got down to two shifts and now down to one. We’re trying to keep our people employed,” he says.
His mill is an example of just how interconnected the B.C. forestry sector has become, and the crisis it’s facing as 25 mills have ceased operating this year, leaving more than 6,000 people out of work.
“We do feel we have a future here but we certainly didn’t see this downturn coming,” says Glazier.
His mill used to rely on getting the scraps, called trim blocks, from a large nearby mill owned by Canfor.
Canfor’s Mackenzie mill shut down abruptly in July, possibly forever. Not only is the closure squeezing Glazier’s mill, but it also means fewer chips for the neighbouring pulp mill. On top of that are dozens of loggers, truckers and other contractors caught up in the downturn.
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Another large mill in town owned by Conifex has resumed operating after a temporary shutdown earlier this year but there are questions about its future. The company is selling off assets elsewhere in the province as it tries to lower its debt.
All this is taking place in Mackenzie, a town of about 3,200 people where forestry is the lifeblood, and people are worried.
At Kelly’s Bakery, a favourite hangout along the town’s main road, there’s a smell of cinnamon and bread dough in the air. Three of those laid off from the local Canfor saw mill sip coffee and talk about their futures.
“It was heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking,” said Rachelle Dumoulin, recalling the day last July when she and 200 others were laid off.
With two kids and a mortgage, she says her family has considered leaving to work elsewhere, but it’s tough.
“Who’s going to buy our house? No one when the mills are shutting down.”
Peter Merkley is in a similar situation, trying to adjust to supporting his family on employment insurance.
“Even with the max EI, it’s half of what we were making, so right away you’re trying to adjust your lifestyle to adjust to that.”
Some have secured short-term work out of town, but that often involves living in a work camp at a remote location for long stretches of time. Cody Ross says he has tried it, but it’s stressful for his four children and his wife.
“The values that I have for my family keep me here. So I can’t go and do camp work, and then miss out on life because my life is my family.”
To fight to keep their town alive, a number of residents quickly formed a group called Mackenzie Matters. They’re lobbying the provincial government and working to keep spirits high amidst what they’re calling a crisis.
Linda Moreland, who works as a realtor, is determined to avoid a repeat of the last serious forestry bust that began in 2007. That’s when all the major mills shut down, schools closed and people fled town.
“A ghost town, it was devastating, everybody left and we had tons of foreclosures. It was just a grim time.”
Another of the organizers, Kim Guthrie, says hard-working residents in small towns like Mackenzie have paid a lot of taxes over the years and have earned some payback.
“Rural communities, they want us to go by the wayside. We don’t want that to happen. We have a lot to offer.”
The group, and forest companies, are pushing for is a reduction in stumpage, the fees paid to the provincial government to cut trees on Crown land. They believe if the companies face lower costs, they would be more likely to restart the shuttered mills.
Many residents also point to the steady stream of logging trucks on local highways now taking local timber out of town.
At the closed Canfor mill, those trucks can be seen picking up thousands of logs left in piles when the mill shut down, transporting them to mills that are starved for wood but still operating in other parts of B.C..
‘Our jobs driving away’
Dumoulin’s voice is tinged with anger when the trucks are brought up.
“Those are our jobs, our jobs driving away,” she says.
She and many others say if properly managed, there are enough trees to keep the Mackenzie mills operating.
Vancouver-based lumber analyst Russ Taylor predicted many of the recent closures years ago. He says the loss of more than 20 mills this year has been painful and expects eight more mills are likely to close by 2025.
He says the root cause is the mountain pine beetle, which killed about 20 per cent of the timber in the B.C. Interior. In recent years, companies accelerated cutting to clear all that dead wood. But now, most has been cut, and there are fewer trees to go around.
On top of that, the price of lumber has dropped sharply, and the provincial and federal governments say they are constrained by strict rules inside the Softwood Lumber Agreement with the United States. They fear a reduction in stumpage rates would be seen as an illegal subsidy and lead to a new trade battle.
It all adds up to a tough year, and a very uncertain future for towns like Mackenzie and many others in B.C.