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Groups voice concern over plan to harvest tree for wood pellets near Fort Nelson

Ben Parfitt, resource analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

Three organizations are voicing concern over Canfor’s plan to sell its forest tenure in the Fort Nelson area to Peak Renewables.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives,, and Conservation North are urging the provincial government to, at least, delay the $30 million sale of the forest resource and are urging Victoria to consult widely with the public and give local First Nations and the non-Indigenous community in Fort Nelson substantially more powers to chart a new course for the region’s forests and crippled economy. 

The proposed tenure transfer comes after Peak Renewables purchased Canfor’s Fort Nelson mill assets late last year. The facilities included two timber processing plants — the PolarBoard-oriented strand board unit, idled in 2008, and the Tackama plywood plant, which was shut down in 2008.

Peak Renewables intends to harvest trees for pellets.

“Wood pellet or biomass plants could become vacuums for B.C.’s last primary forests without an explicit commitment from the government and the province’s Chief Forester that this will not happen,” said Conservation North director Michelle Connolly. “Our experience in the central interior has been that B.C. and the logging industry refer to primary and old forests as ‘residues, waste, inferior or low-quality’ to justify logging them. Nothing could be further from the truth.” 

The transfer requires provincial government approval. It has given members of the public until just February 19 to submit comments. If the transfer proceeds, Peak proposes to build Canada’s largest pellet mill, which would be designed from the moment it commences operations to feed on whole trees, not wood waste, she added. 

The Fort Nelson region last had mills operating in town in 2008. When Canfor closed the mills that year, 600 people lost their jobs making plywood and oriented strand board. If built, the pellet mill would employ around 60 people or one tenth the previous workforce, according to the three groups. 

“The B.C. government has made a commitment to forest communities to support real value-added milling, generating good jobs while ensuring forests maintain ecological integrity in the long-term,” said Tegan Hansen, with “Building new pellet plants sourced entirely from primary and old growth forests in no way aligns with that promise.”

Hansen added that burning wood pellets emits more CO2 at the stack than does burning coal.

Peak Renewables CEO Brian Baarda, former CEO of Paper Excellence, told Business in Vancouver that the plant would employ about 50 people. The woodlands operations would employ 300 to 400 in logging. The company’s chief forester formerly worked with Mosaic and its predecessor, TimberWest.

“We’ve got a great team of individuals,” Baarda said. “Brian [Fehr has] built pellet plants before. We have tons of experience in the team to pull this thing off.”

In new research published today, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says several elements of the pellet plan and related government policies are of concern:

  • Nearly 1.2 million cubic metres or roughly 30,000 truckloads of the region’s aspen trees would be consumed each year in the proposed pellet mill. 
  • 800,000 cubic metres of spruce trees would be logged each year as well and could be trucked out of Fort Nelson for milling in Fort St. John or points further south. 
  • Recent provincial government-approved logging rates in the region would effectively double the rates recorded during Canfor’s last years of operation in Fort Nelson. 

“This looks a lot more like value-subtracted, not value-added,” said Ben Parfitt, a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “Thirteen years ago 600 people worked in mills in Fort Nelson. The new plan would see logging rates double, yet manufacturing jobs would be just one tenth what they used to be when those mills were running. That’s neither a recipe for long-term ecological health nor economic wellbeing.” 

Parfitt says the provincial government has a unique opportunity to try something new in the Fort Nelson region. Two years ago, it granted the Fort Nelson First Nation and the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality a community forest licence to jointly manage. But the licence only pertains to about one tenth of the current allowable annual cut in the region’s forests. 

“It’s time to think big. Why not turn the entire Fort Nelson Timber Supply Area over to the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in the region and let them determine what is in their long-term best interests? The province’s resource industry policies have been a spectacular failure to date both in the forestry and natural gas sectors in Fort Nelson. The people of the region deserve a lot better.”

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