One of Merritt’s major economic powerhouses currently lies dormant, closed by a lack of timber supply and government approval of timber harvesting. Aspen Planers, owned by Surrey based AP Group, shut down their Merritt lumber mill at the beginning of December without an official reopening date. With no cutting permits having been issued since the beginning of the two Merritt sites’ closure, senior officials with AP Group say the closure could drag on to the end of January, or even longer.
The closure, caused by a lack of logs and cutting permits, is affecting roughly 150 employees of Aspen Planers in Merritt, along with a number of contractors and logging truck drivers that play an essential role in Aspen’s operations. AP Group officials told the Herald in December that they were frustrated with the “unnecessarily complicated and opaque” process for obtaining a cutting permit. This fact has not changed, with Aspen saying the key issue is still a lack of supply and provincially approved cutting permits.
“It’s kind of an indeterminate closure, simply because it’s coming back to the same thing,” said Bruce Rose, executive vice president with AP Group.
“For whatever reason, the cutting permit approval process is clogged. Until there is something that changes and cutting permits are provided, we can’t run, it’s that simple.”
British Columbia’s Forest & Range Practices Act, which regulates the cutting of trees on Crown land, sets out the process for obtaining permits and permissions in regards to provincial forestry practices. The provincial government also sets an Allowable Annual Cut (AAC) for areas across the province, which determines the number of metres cubed of timber may be cut in the region per year. The AAC for Merritt’s forestry area is 1,200,000 m³, and those looking to harvest from that set amount must apply for cutting permits before falling trees.
“There’s not a lot of transparency to it, with what’s going on, in the Ministry of Forests as they’re working on the cutting permit. They don’t necessarily say, ‘this is where we’re at, this is when you can expect that,’ so it’s quite opaque,” added Rose.
Rose said that with no permits there can be no logging, which means no timber to process. Even applications for permits to harvest fire affected timber from the Lytton Creek Fire, a process in which Rose said time is of the essence for the sake of land rehabilitation and reforestation, have not been approved. This lack of timber could lead to a lengthier curtailment of operations, with possible heavy impacts on local forestry related economic activity. Aspen Planers often moves harvested logs between milling operations, such as the Merritt mill, and veneer plants and plywood operations the company owns in Lillooet and Savona. Rose noted that the closure could impact a number of forestry operations in rural B.C. communities.
Vaagen Fibre Canada, a family owned milling operation in Midway, B.C, recently announced the indefinite closure of its mill. The closure affects 85 direct employees, and over 100 contractors. While the issue at Vaagen is related to the access of wood fibre at a market price. Merritt has seen its fair share of mill shutdowns throughout the years, including permanent shutdowns by Ardew Wood Products and Tolko Industries. The issue is especially noticeable in smaller towns that rely on industries such as forestry to feed their tax base, but Rose said its effects can be felt far and wide.
“This is not just a Merritt based issue, this is an issue in a lot of places around the province,” noted Rose.
“It creates so much uncertainty. Just like any business or organization, you try to have some aspects of certainty so you can do some planning, and you can convey and coordinate with your suppliers and contractors, and for that matter, with our customers in terms of providing our products. We’re left suspended in this aspect of a great degree of uncertainty, it’s our biggest challenge of the current time.”
The Herald reached out to the BC Forests District Office in Merritt, and was referred to the provincial governments media line, where a request has been left for an interview.
For now, local Aspen Planers employees will wait for their workplace to reopen, with no estimate on when that could be. A small number of Aspen workers accepted the company’s offer to relocate to other nearby operations, but most remain laid off and reliant on Employment Insurance (EI) and other benefits.