Employees of Aspen Planers in Merritt, along with local forestry contractors, are gathering at the Ministry of Forests’ Cascades Natural Resource District office on Airport Road, protesting what they see as a lack of action by the provincial government on the approval of local cutting permits. Aspen Planers’ Merritt mill is currently open, processing logs imported from northern Vancouver Island, but its owners say that it will shut down soon if new permits aren’t issued. 

Organizers of the protest told the Herald that they hope to see action by government on the file, and an approved cutting permit for Aspen Planers in the near future. The mill was closed for over a month starting December 2022, and is only reopened due to an external supply of logs. Bryan Halford, chairman of Aspen Planer’s local United Steelworkers union chapter, said morale at the mill has been low amidst uncertainty about its future, and the future of the industry as a whole. 

“We’re here today because the government is refusing to sign our permits, some of them are four months old, and we have some that are over a year old,” said Halford.

“Everybody is stressed out, it’s not fun being at work right now. It’s tough. They’re all looking for other jobs, we all have to have somewhere to go. It’s a small town, we’re going to have to leave town if that’s the case. We know if the mill goes down, well, what’s the City going to come to?”

British Columbia’s Forest & Range Practices Act, which regulates the cutting of trees on government-owned 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. 

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. Aspen claims the process to obtain a cutting permit is currently stalled by the Ministry’s negotiations with local First Nations around environmental stewardship. The Herald has reached out to local First Nations and First Nations owned forestry companies for comment on their possible concerns.

“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 in a recent statement to the Herald

“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.”

The Ministry of Forests did not immediately respond to a request for an interview on the topic, but sent a statement acknowledging the “challenging times” forestry workers, families, and the community as a whole is experiencing. 

“Government is working with Aspen Planers on solutions to concerns around cutting permits and with local government and First Nations,” said the Ministry to the Herald in a statement.

“We are also engaging the local communities in an approach that is expected to lead to collaborative decisions for the region.”

The protestors gathered at the Ministry of Forests office with signs, trucks, hardhats and all to request immediate government action, and said they don’t plan on stopping their gatherings until permits are signed.