For the fifth week in a row, employees and contractors with Aspen Planers gathered to rally community support for the city’s largest employer, who said this week it still has not received a new cutting permit from the Ministry of Forests. 

Aspen Planers’ Merritt mill was closed for over a month starting December 2022, and only reopened a month ago due to an external supply of logs, which is what has kept the mill running at reduced capacity for a number of weeks. Although running, Aspen said the cost of importing logs is huge and could result in another closure in the near future. The mill is already running on just one shift per day. 

Both AP Group, the parent company of Aspen Planers, and mill union leadership say the issue behind the closure is a lack of cutting permits being issued by the provincial Ministry of Forests. The Ministry told the Herald that a vast majority of local permits, which are required to harvest logs in B.C., are issued within 45 days, and that it is working with both Aspen Planers and local First Nations to find ways to address First Nations’ concerns around sustainable forestry practices. 

“We have little choice but to wait until the provincial government decides that they have completed meaningful consultation on these permits with the various Nicola Valley First Nations,” said Bruce Rose, executive vice president with AP Group.

“We have been given no indication when that could be. Only they can answer when that may be. We’ve been waiting over a year on certain permits. We only hope that we don’t have to wait yet another year.”

Rose noted that while the Ministry did reach out with some clarifying information in recent weeks, there was no contact prior, and he views the action as too little too late. He said that while Aspen welcomes conversations about improving the permitting and forestry management processes to ensure that reconciliation and conservation objectives are being met, job security for Aspen Planers workers is a must. 

“It’s worse and worse every week,” said Bryan Halford, chair for Aspen Planers’ local United Steelworkers union, at the most recent Friday protest.

“We have more guys off, more guys looking for work. They’re coming to me and asking what’s happening, and all I can give them is the same answer that the government is giving us. We just have to wait.”

Aspen has called the permitting process broken and “unnecessarily opaque” in the past, and said major reform is needed. Rose said that permitting delays are not only negatively impacting mill workers, but also contractors, the city as a whole, and operations in neighbouring communities. Rose claimed that local First Nations have received approved cutting permits in the Merritt Timber Supply Area while Aspen waits to receive even an update on the status of their aging permits. 

“It is shocking that other licensees – including certain First Nations – have received cutting permit approvals in the meantime,” said Rose. 

The Herald has reached out to the Ministry of Forests for comment, and to access any recently approved cutting permits. Stuwix Resources, a forestry company owned by eight local First Nations, recently declined the Herald’s request for an interview on the topic of cutting permit applications in the Nicola Valley. 

Rose added that Aspen Planers looks to engage First Nations regarding their concerns in the coming weeks, and looks to move towards a collaborative solution. The Herald has reached out to a number of area First Nations for comment on their possible concerns. 

“Aspen Planers continue to feel strongly that we can  collectively steward the environment and our forest resources in a responsible manner and support First Nations reconciliation efforts while also benefiting forest workers and communities,” said Rose. “Currently, the government’s approach appears to give no consideration to forest workers. We continue to explore options that genuinely support working folks and help the community of Merritt, rather than forcing them to accept inferior ‘transition’ programs in lieu of their family supporting forestry industry jobs.”

Halford noted that Merritt residents can expect to see the protestors and their signs at their usual intersection until new permits are signed, with the next protest planned for Friday, March 17, at 11:30 a.m. Halford confirmed that Fraser-Nicola MLA Jackie Tegart, along with BC Liberal Forestry Critic Mike Bernier will both be in attendance. He urged members of the community to show support for their local cause by attending the rally.