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Minister costing logging jobs, critics say

B.C. Forests Minister Steve Thomson has overruled recommendations from his own advisory board on log exports dozens of times in the past three months, electing to send millions of dollars worth of raw logs to Asia rather than local mills.

The minister's decisions effectively put logging profits ahead of jobs in B.C. mills, says a forestry executive whose bid for coastal logs was approved by the minister's Timber Export Advisory Committee but quashed by the minister.

Mr. Thomson said he has rejected his committee's advice, citing an arcane policy debate about freight costs. But the result is that workers at a Teal-Jones Group sawmill in Surrey are facing down time this week because of a shortage of fibre, while buyers in China, Japan and South Korea are purchasing B.C. logs in record volumes at premium prices that B.C. mills can't afford.

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"There is room for exports, but I think the significant increase in exports is going to ensure nobody can put up another mill in B.C.," said Hanif Karmally, chief financial officer for the Teal-Jones Group.

Teal-Jones, which owns a string of forestry operations across the province, found that the committee started approving its domestic timber bids in December – after a year that saw a 50-per-cent increase in the volume of logs being shipped overseas.

But the minister's office disagreed with the committee's new-found reluctance to declare as "surplus" those logs that were being sought by local mills. Throughout December and January, the ministry spiked 86 recommendations by the advisory board that would have kept roughly 70,000 cubic metres of wood in B.C. mills. By February, the ministry simply stopped sending the applications to the committee at all, directly rejecting another 47 local offers for 35,000 cubic metres of wood.

The wood is being sold to Asian mills at about double the domestic price.

The minister's decisions were raised in the legislature on Tuesday, just hours after Premier Christy Clark held a press conference to tout the success of her jobs plan.

NDP Opposition Leader Adrian Dix blasted her government for putting mill jobs at risk. "They specifically intervened to stop jobs from being created in British Columbia," Mr. Dix later told reporters.

Ms. Clark was not in the legislature on Tuesday. Instead, she attended an event at Seaspan Shipyards to mark the six-month anniversary of her jobs plan.

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"That's the problem when you have a communications exercise dressed up as a jobs plan," Mr. Dix said. "That's the reason, ultimately, that the government is in such trouble."

Mr. Thomson told reporters he rejected the advice of his committee because his government is in the midst of a policy review on raw log exports and the committee appeared to be changing policy on its own by pushing more wood to local mills.

"They are an advisory committee … but given the fact that there was a shift in policy advice, we administered the policy as it had previously been administered."

He said his government needs to find the "appropriate balance" to ensure harvesting jobs are maintained as well as processing jobs. He is set to visit the Teal-Jones operations next week. "The Teal-Jones boys know we are looking at this policy, what we are telling them is that it is under review."

He said the question of surplus timber is wrapped up in the larger review of raw-log exports that is under way.

In January, Ms. Clark promised a conference of truck loggers that the review would not shut the door on raw-log exports. "I can assure you that on log exports, my government is taking a common-sense approach," the Premier said at that time.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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