Byline: David Euler
Ontario’s forest industry has been pummeled by a variety of economic forces in recent years. These include a rising Canadian dollar, declining demand for newsprint, low-cost foreign competition, U.S. export barriers, higher electricity rates and technological change.
Any of these forces alone would pose a challenge. In combination they have been a body blow to the pulp, paper and lumber industries. More than 6,500 jobs have been lost in just more than three years. People are leaving northern towns and the tax base of cities such as Kenora and Thunder Bay has been steadily eroded.
Community leaders are justifiably concerned. There is every indication the forest industry will not be rebounding soon. Instead, most industry analysts observe that a period of consolidation and re-structuring is underway that will see fewer, larger companies operating larger mills that employ fewer people to produce each ton of pulp or thousand board feet of lumber.
A pretty bleak picture, especially if we simply sit back and allow it to continue to unfold. But hidden in the negative statistics is one potentially positive one – Ontario now has a significant wood surplus due to declining harvest rates. We could use this still standing forest to enhance our reputation as a green leader in markets and to protect important ecological services here at home.
If we look at the current situation from this perspective, the opportunity is huge – we are talking about having the chance to decide the fate of a wood supply that would keep Manitoba’s entire provincial operations going for a year.
Essentially, we now find ourselves with our long overdrawn forest bank account back in the black and we are faced with the decision of how best to invest an abundance of natural capital. What could we do that would deliver greater social equity, ecological balance and economic and employment certainty in Northern Ontario?
Here’s one thing we could do: First Nation communities such as Grassy Narrows near Kenora have been asking that logging operations leave more of their traditional territory intact. It is time to acknowledge the community’s needs, honour its request and enable them to plan for their own future, using some of the available wood.
Here’s another: The high rates of logging required to maintain the pulp mills have also pushed species like woodland caribou, wolverine, marten and lake trout to the edge of survival. Woodland caribou in particular, with their need for large, older, remote forests, have disappeared from about 40 per cent of their range in Ontario since the late 19th century. Scientists tell us that they will likely be gone completely from the province in 50-80 years unless we act soon.
In the spirit of Ontario’s proposed new Endangered Species Act, we can now leave more of our forests intact to ensure the survival of caribou and other species at risk. This would be a smart – and moral – investment in our forests. It would also make great economic sense, given the demand for forest products that do not come from controversial areas such as endangered species habitat.
Currently, there are more than 700 companies that have publicly stated they want wood products from ecologically harvested forests. Ontario could take advantage of and build long-term job security around this “green” market.
Leaving more forests standing (and letting some get older) may also turn out to be a significant source of new funds if Canada moves to join Europe and other countries in setting up a carbon trading mechanism to address climate change. Under proposed rules, factories and utilities can pay forest owners for the increased carbon that they are storing when the forests grow older or are left standing.
We also need to think creatively about the best ways to provide new forest industry jobs. These are likely to be in sectors where value is produced through innovation or by taking advantage of specialized markets. For example, a proposed new facility in Red Lake would use strong, slow-grown black spruce to make laminated structural wood products for the Japanese market. This is an optimal use of what grows best in Ontario’s forests.
Similarly, given Northern Ontario’s proximity to the largest house construction market in the world just south of the border, industry analysts also point to the big opportunities to produce home components instead of simply 2-by-4s.
The options for balanced conservation and industry investment are many but one thing is clear. Out of misfortune can arise opportunity and Ontario now has a chance to choose the type of forest future it wants and to support the social and economic renewal of forest-dependent communities. It is time to embrace the future, not mourn the past.
David Euler is the former dean of the Faculty of Forestry and the Forest Environment at Lakehead University.