Aspen Planers has announced that it has recently restarted its Merritt mill, which has been closed since early December due to a lack of approved cutting permits, for an undetermined amount of time. The mill restarted operation on February 1, 2023. Representatives of AP Group, the parent company of Aspen Planers, told the Herald that the mill will be processing coastal cedar logs rather than its typical Interior fibre as their local cutting permit applications remain unapproved. 

The cedar logs are coming from northern Vancouver Island, transported by ocean until the Fraser River, where they are dewatered and driven via logging truck to Aspen’s mill on Quilchena Avenue. The company said it is taking on the extra expense of transporting logs to restart the mill and provide the 150 employees of the mill, who have been laid off since mid December, with a source of income. The length of the reopening is currently unknown, as Aspen notes their supply is still up in the air, due to what they believed are ongoing reconciliation efforts in the province.

“While there hasn’t been any clarity provided by the Ministry of Forests, we are led to believe that cutting permit approvals are stalled due to reconciliation negotiations between various Nicola Valley First Nation bands and the provincial government. It is understandably frustrating for laid-off workers who cannot make a living while these issues are being addressed,” said Bruce Rose, executive vice president of AP Group. 

“We continue to welcome conversations about improving the permitting and forestry management processes to ensure that reconciliation and conservation objectives are being met, while the hardworking people who earn their livelihoods can remain employed. It is very simple: no cutting permits means no logging, no jobs, and no forestry-related economic activity in and around the Nicola Valley.”

Rose and AP Group’s frustrations with the permitting are felt in numerous parts of the province, with closures and curtailments announced by a number of mills and pulp lines in recent weeks. Canfor recently restructured its northern operations, affecting nearly 500 jobs and permanently closing a number of mills. Along with Aspen Planers, a number of smaller operations such as Vaagen Fibre Canada, a family owned milling operation in Midway, B.C, recently announced the indefinite closures of their mills. Tolko Industries, Sinclair Group, and Western Forest products have permanent closures and temporary curtailments at mills across Vancouver Island and B.C.’s Interior. Many of these companies have attributed their closures to worsening market conditions and lack of access to fibre. 

The provincial government has responded to the closures with a series of funding announcements, presenting over $140 million in aid. The $90 million B.C. Manufacturing Jobs Fund is aimed at supporting investment and innovation for forestry companies, such as the purchasing of new equipment, or exploring paper-based alternatives to plastic packaging. Another $50 million will be funnelled through the Forest Enhancement Society of BC (FESBC) to help transfer fire-damaged wood from remote areas of the province to pulp mills. In addition, the new B.C. Timber Sales Value-Added Manufacturing Program will set aside dedicated fibre supply, 10 percent of total supply, for small and medium-sized mill operations. Opposition critics say the support doesn’t go far enough. 

“When they’re applying for permits to the backcountry to harvest the trees, and then either not hearing back from government in a timely manner, or maybe the answer is even no, they’re struggling to get access to timber right now,” said MLA Mike Bernier, BC Liberal Shadow Minister of Forests.

“We could have a very strong, robust forestry sector, but this present government is trying to treat it almost like a sunset industry, like it’s going away, which is really too bad. That’s why we’re not seeing the support, I’m afraid.” 

Aspen Planers group has maintained throughout the curtailment at their Merritt mill that access to cutting permits has been the issue at hand, with no new permits having been issued to the company in months. A lack of updates during what Aspen representatives have called an “opaque and unnecessarily complicated” permitting process has created further uncertainty for the mill, the reopening of which may not last long. 

Ministry of Forests (MOF) staff recently told the Herald that the latest numbers show over 84 percent of permits in the Cascades Forestry District were issued within 40 days, and that mountain pine beetle damage and the 2021 wildfires made the Merritt area’s annual allowable cut shrink by 300,000 m³ in recent years. The Herald requested an interview through MOF staff with Minister of Forests Bruce Ralston, but has yet to secure one. Staff instead provided a statement in response to the Herald’s question regarding the economic impact of forestry, and possible concerns from local First Nations regarding the issuance of cutting permits. 

“The Ministry of Forests values the contribution of forestry to the regional economy of the Nicola Valley and the people who live and work there,” said the MOF in a statement to the Herald.  

“The Province is working with the local communities and First Nations to design a collaborative and principled approach to issuing cutting permits that addresses stewardship concerns.”

The Herald also reached out to Stuwix Resources Joint Venture, a Merritt-based forestry company owned by eight local First Nations, to request an interview on the topic of cutting permits, but has not heard back after leaving a number of messages.

B.C.’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. Bernier added that he believes the lack of access to fibre and government support is slowly killing a multigenerational industry in B.C., and that the permitting process should be reviewed. 

“We’re starting to see this right across rural British Columbia,” added Bernier.

“People are just glazed over because they’re so distraught right now. Some of these people have been working 20, 30, or 40 years in this sector, it’s multigenerational. It obviously can be very disheartening when you’re told, all of a sudden, your whole life in an industry is going down in flames. It’s very sad to watch.” 

Bernier added that constituents in his riding of Peace River South, which includes Dawson Creek and Chetwynd, have been “hurting” due to the recent closures. He noted that while employees are obviously directly affected by the closures, contractors, companies, and communities as a whole suffer from the fallout. Government support in Peace River South has been met with skepticism and, in some cases, outright laughter, according to Bernier. He believes the issue must be addressed before 2023 becomes a “devastating” year for B.C.’s forestry industry, adding that the province has “priced itself out of competition” by increasing taxes and fees related to the industry.

The economic effect of Aspen’s closure, which AP Group said could start again at any time if no cutting permits are approved, was felt by over 150 direct Merritt-based employees and many other contractors, equipment providers, and even Aspen’s other operations in Savona and Lillooet. According to the company, the average sawmill worker wage at the Merritt mill is approximately $50 to $55 per hour, including a benefits package, per their collective agreement with the United Steelworkers Union that represents its workers. According to City of Merritt officials, Aspen Planers paid $1,649,166.81 in taxes in 2022 to all taxing authorities, including the City, on all of its Merritt properties. The total taxes collected by the City of Merritt in 2022 was $14,525,674, with $9,036,134 in municipal taxes, and the difference being remitted to the other taxing authorities. Merritt’s Mayor told the Herald the economic impact of Aspen’s closure was felt across the community.

“It affects Merritt wholly, and it also affects the households of everybody that has been laid off,” said Mayor Mike Goetz.

“Everybody has a budget, and when you’ve been laid off, your budget changes. I’ve talked to several businesses in town that have really noticed the cutback in their stores since the announcement that Aspen Planers was laying everybody off, and it has affected their year-end numbers.”

Goetz noted that the City has been in talks with both the provincial government and Aspen Planers to resolve the ongoing issues. The Mayor also recently met with the District Manager for Merritt’s Cascades Forest District regarding the issuance of cutting permits, but said there has been no movement so far. The City said it is monitoring the situation and working with parties involved towards a resolution. Goetz noted that Aspen Planers has a large impact on the City’s finances, including employment numbers and contributions to the tax base. He is hopeful the Minister of Forests will review the file and see the need for action. 

For Aspen Planers, it’s back to business as somewhat usual, but the company said only time and response from the provincial government will tell how things play out.