BEPPLE – Closure of Canfor’s Vavenby sawmill a sign of the times in rural B.C.

“Rolling down the highway, leavin’ on a bus,

Never thought I’d leave this town, but now I’ve had enough.

First they closed the sawmill, then they shut the school,

Never thought I’d leave this town, but I ain’t no fool.”

THOSE ARE LYRICS to a banjo song I wrote over a decade ago, after going on a road trip through small towns with shuttered mills in Northern B.C.  The song is as valid today as it was when I wrote it.

When a mill shuts down in a small town, everyone in the town feels it.

In 2004, there were 194 lumber mills in B.C.  By 2017, only 126 mills remained.  The decline started years before that.  From 1990 to 2004, B.C. lost 37 per cent of its medium and large mills.

Mills have closed, but provincial lumber production has stayed relatively steady.

In 1990, the average medium or large mill in the Interior produced 121 million board feet per year. By 2004, mills were producing 177 million board feet per year.  By 2017, the average mill produced 206 million board feet per year.  That is, over the last 27 years, the average mill production almost doubled.

It now takes half as many mills to produce the same amount of lumber.

Cold comfort for the 172 people who lost their jobs with the announcement this week of the closure of Canfor’s Vavenby sawmill.

It could just as easily have been another mill of another company in another town.  And next week, it may well be.

Mechanization, automation and computer software means sawmills run faster and faster, and produce more and more lumber out of the same logs.

But mechanization, automation and computer software don’t account for people’s lives.

The people who worked in the Vavenby mill didn’t just put their labour into their mill.  They invested their savings into buying homes. They now face an uncertain future as to what their homes will be worth.  They raised children in Vavenby and surrounding communities.  Those communities’ schools will now have fewer kids in September. They invested as active volunteers in minor hockey, service clubs and 4-H to build a strong North Thompson.

Some of the millworkers closer to retirement may stay in Vavenby and the North Thompson, but younger folk will move away.  Just last year, Canfor advertised to hire an accountant in Vavenby.  That professional is sure to move away, as will electricians, millwrights, and engineers.  The high paid workers will leave, and with them the money they spent in the community.

Truth be told, I’m as much a part of the reason for the mill closures as anyone.  For five years in the late ‘90s, I worked for a company that manufactured lumber processing equipment.  It was my job, along with others to create machinery which processed more, higher quality wood, faster.  I specifically worked on an automated lumber grader, which is a job traditionally done by about to four human graders.

Automation is all around us. It’s not in itself a bad thing. Luggage is delivered in an airport with automation.  Milk is packaged in a dairy with automation.  The coal rail cars rolling through Kamloops every day were filled using automated machinery.

But with each mill closing because of automation, rural B.C. becomes an emptier place.  Small towns shrink.  Rural towns become poorer.

The B.C. government provides the B.C. Rural Dividend fund of $25 million per year to help rural B.C. communities diversify their economies. That’s a pittance. Last year alone, the Vavenby Canfor mill produced 216 million board feet of lumber, or about $115 million worth of lumber. Overall, there is more than $6 billion in softwood lumber production in B.C. each year.

As mill after mill closes because of automation, the province of B.C. needs to decide if it truly wants to support rural B.C., not just with a pittance of the current Rural Dividend fund.  There are 140 towns in B.C. dependent on forestry for their local economy.  This week Vavenby was hit with a closure, next week it could be just as easily be Lavington, or Savona, or Vanderhoof.

Automation is inevitable, but the people in small mill towns shouldn’t have to bear the lion’s share of the cost.  Rural B.C. deserves more than a crumb of $25 million for the riches it has given all of B.C.

Nancy Bepple is a former City councillor of Kamloops with a strong interest in community building projects.

About Mel Rothenburger (7716 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

4 Comments on BEPPLE – Closure of Canfor’s Vavenby sawmill a sign of the times in rural B.C.

  1. George Doonan // June 18, 2019 at 10:52 AM // Reply

    apertancy and value added are the only ways to go. if therre is no value added component then there should be . njo wood. Interfor saying they will add a dry kiln to give value added to lumber is just more crap. dry kilned lumber is the standard comodity not a vaue added commodity.

  2. Blaine Young // June 8, 2019 at 3:49 PM // Reply

    Tony says it better than I can. It seems to me that clear-cutting is a boom bust cycle of forestry. It yields much greater in the short term only to run out of forests to log in the medium term. It’s not a sustainable way to manage the forestry economy.

  3. Tony Brumell // June 5, 2019 at 1:30 PM // Reply

    Agreed David. I would go so far as to include the re instatement of comunity forests for community mills. Called apertancy it was the policy of several provincial governments since the fifties. With a regulated AAC and local procurement it guarenteed long term employment with out abusing forests to the point where they can’t replant and replace the AAC.. Efficiency is important but not to the point where the land is destroyed and the residents are forced to leave. Consolidation of mills only works in favour of the giant forest companies.
    John Horgan could do this if he cared about the workers employed in the forest industry and not the export of whole logs and local value added buisness.

  4. David Goar // June 5, 2019 at 7:13 AM // Reply

    I agree with your identification of the problem. We differ as to the solution. I believe it is incumbent upon the BC provincial government to be far more careful in the allocation of timber resources and do so in a way designed to preserve jobs and not just bolster the profits of large multinational lumber corporations. If we ever, really, get “big money “ out of politics then such an approach might be employed.

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