Detail of a map showing scenic corridors in the Lakes TSA. Darker areas represent forestry areas where a scenic look is least important.

Detail of a map showing scenic corridors in the Lakes TSA. Darker areas represent forestry areas where a scenic look is least important.

Province may relax forestry rules to rebuild Burns Lake mill

Rules protecting scenic corridors, wildlife and old growth may be relaxed to secure timber for a new sawmill in Burns Lake.

Forestry rules protecting scenic corridors, wildlife and old growth may have to go or be relaxed to secure enough timber for a new sawmill in Burns Lake.

BC Liberal MLA John Rustad says he and other members of the Burns Lake recovery task force have some hard numbers and tough choices to face.

“It’s going to be very, very difficult,” he says.

Hampton Affiliates held a licence to cut an annual 1.1 million cubic metres in the Lakes area before a Jan. 20 explosion and fire tore through its Burns Lake mill, killing two workers and putting 250 more out of work.

Burns Lake’s Pinnacle Pellet plant took in another 800,000 cubic metres of timber per year.

Combined, Rustad says a rebuilt mill and the pellet plant will require between 1.4 and 1.8 million cubic metres of timber to operate.

But in the next three to ten years, Rustad said the Lakes District’s pine-beetle infestation is likely to spell a steep drop for its timber supply—from two million to just 550,000 cubic metres a year.

“That’s the challenge we’re facing,” said Rustad.

Rustad was quick to add that it makes no sense for Burns Lake to take in timber that has already been allocated to neighbouring areas, such as the Morice. Even switching the small operators who use BC Timber Sales over to a rebuilt Hampton Affiliates mill would simply spread the shortage in other areas, he said.

Instead, Rustad said the province is taking a hard looking at several forestry rules to free up unallocated timber.

One of the key areas will B.C.’s visual quality objectives—rules that restrict how trees are logged along scene rivers, lake shores and roadways.

If the province does relax those rules, Rustad said an extra one to three million cubic metres of timber could be freed up along Smithers to Prince George corridor.

But in the Lakes timber supply area alone,  he said the same move would only free up 100,000 cubic metres.

Other constraints the province will look at are rules managing old-growth—trees more than 140 years old—and the winter range of mule deer.

On the deer issue, Rustad wondered if the current protections haven’t already proved too successful.

“I know the farmers would say we’ve got too many deer around at the moment,” he said.

“In any case, we’re going to have to take a hard look at all of those constraints and say what makes sense, what should we keep, and what could we look at relaxing or eliminating.”

As well as relaxing those rules, Rustad said the task force is looking at a switch to area-based management for logging companies in the Lakes area.

Since 1999, the province has run pilot projects where loggers are assigned on whole areas to manage, rather than parcelled-out supply blocks.

That system has seen more intensive harvesting—up to  40 per cent more in some areas.

But switching to area-based management would require legislative change, Rustad said, a concern since a Burns Lake rebuild would have to run on tight, 18-month timeline.

Other options including trucking in some of the 300 million cubic metres of unallocated timber in Mackenzie area or the six million cubic metres under Ootsa Lake.

But both those avenues have been put on hold until lumber prices are higher, Rustad said, although down the road he said the province may require that large forestry companies take some portion of their annual cut from such far-off areas to ease pressure on their own mid-term supply.

A mill fire and a high rate of beetle-killed pine have pushed the Lakes timber supply area to the foreground, but Rustad said many other northwest and interior towns are bound to face the same tough choices.

Visual-quality objectives, in particular, have been questioned before, both by the Union of BC Municipalities and B.C.’s professional forester’s association.

In November, B.C. professional foresters association published results from a survey that found its members split on axing the scenic objectives.

Some members said cutting them would make the most sense, given that they are the only “human-centric” objective set by government, while other were concerned about the impact to B.C.’s tourism industry.