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Forests minister visits B.C. town rocked by multiple mill shutdowns

B.C. Forests Minister Doug Donaldson spoke to a forest industry rally in Mackenzie Thursday, where all three three sawmills are shut down and the pulp mill may soon have to follow.

The community north of Prince George has seen hard times before, when most of two sawmills and the pulp mill went down with the 2008 bankruptcy of Oregon-based Pope and Talbot. Conifex restarted the pulp mill and one sawmill, Canfor ran another one until July, when it shut it down indefinitely due to high costs, low lumber prices and what the company called “challenging operating conditions.”

That leaves the pulp mill, now owned by Paper Excellence, as the only operation still running, and it depends on sawmill waste. East Fraser Fibre’s remanufacturing mill uses trim blocks from local sawmills, so it is down too, Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Mike Morris says.

Morris said there are 3,000 people still living in Mackenzie, down by half since before the last downturn in 2008, and about a third of them came out to the rally. They didn’t have much to cheer about.

Donaldson told the rally that he has met with players looking for solutions, and the provincial agency B.C. Timber Sales is in discussions with Conifex to provide enough timber to restart its sawmill in September.

“We know restarting the Conifex sawmill would provide support, not only for mill workers, but also downstream businesses in the area that rely on the mill residuals, including Conifex Power, Fraser Power and Paper Excellence,” Donaldson told the rally.

He warned that while reducing provincial stumpage is often suggested, that’s an action sure to spark further trade actions from U.S. lumber producers who have already convinced their government to impose border duties of about 20 per cent.

Donaldson said the province is working on efforts including job fairs, skills training and career counselling for laid-off workers, similar to efforts in Fort St. James, where the Conifex sawmill has been shut down and sold, and other communities that have seen temporary or permanent shutdowns.

RELATED: Fort St. James employees uncertain about mill sale

RELATED: 172 layoffs as Canfor closes Vavenby sawmill

Morris said the NDP government should be looking at the “cumulative tax structure” for mill operations and give them some temporary relief.

“The frustrating part for locals is watching all these logs that have been harvested in the Mackenzie area transported out of town every day on trucks down to Canfor operations, West Fraser operations, Dunkley Lumber operations that are operating today in other parts of the country, and nobody’s milling logs here,” Morris said in an interview.

Donaldson said he has called on the federal government to provide additional worker support, and to “press the gas pedal” on a resolution to the U.S. lumber dispute.

Morris and Donaldson agree on the community’s ability to bounce back from hard times.

“From what you’ve shown today and in the past, your resiliency, your creativity, your determination, I’m confident Mackenzie has a solid future,” Donaldson told the rally.


@tomfletcherbc
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Tom Fletcher

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