Monique Keiran: Exports of wood tie us to the U.S.

In mid-August 1863, the steamer Flying Dutchman left Burrard Inlet with a cargo of 25,000 feet of three-inch plank lumber. The first commercial cargo of lumber to leave Burrard Inlet hadn’t far to travel.

Upon exiting the inlet, Capt. William Moore pointed the ship southward, worked his way around Point Grey, and turned east up the north arm of the Fraser River. He docked at New Westminster, where the ship was unloaded. The lumber would be used to build the levee along the city’s waterfront.

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By the following summer, shiploads of old-growth wood from the forests that cloaked the Inlet’s rainy shores were regularly heading further afield. They travelled all the way to Victoria, Nanaimo and other coastal towns in the colony of Vancouver Island.

Then, in November, the earliest shipment of lumber from Burrard Inlet to foreign ports was exported. More than 277,000 feet of lumber and 16,000 pickets were shipped aboard the barque Ellen Lewis, bound for Australia.

Earnings from these early B.C. softwood-lumber shipments were not enough to keep the owners of the sawmill that produced the lumber in business.

They also were not the first exports of wood from these shores. In 1788, just 10 years after Capt. James Cook dropped anchor in Nootka Sound, Capt. John Meares hauled shipbuilding spars from B.C. forests to China. In 1847, the Hudson’s Bay Company built the first sawmill in the province-to-be at Victoria.

The first recorded export of Island timber occurred in 1848, destined for gold rush-crazed San Francisco. Port Alberni’s sawmill was built in 1861 to export Island lumber.

Today, B.C. is one of the world’s largest exporters of wood fibre. According to Statistics Canada, forest-product exports from the province earned $13.9 billion in 2016. More than half of these products go to the U.S., which adds almost $7.5 billion to the B.C. economy.

Of all the exported forest products made in B.C. — pulp, raw logs and other wood and paper products — softwood lumber makes up half of both the percentage share and the value. Again, the lion’s share is shipped to our southern neighbours, accounting for about two-thirds of B.C.’s softwood-lumber export revenues.

Sure, the province has diversified its markets during the past two decades. Last year, we shipped one-fifth of our softwood planks to China. China also imports about 60 per cent of both our pulp and raw-log exports. It has even built port facilities to process and treat B.C.-grown logs to prevent mountain pine beetle and other unwanted imports from coming into their country.

Although China and other markets help to offset our dependency on our hard-bargaining neighbours to the south, many British Columbians decry the opportunities lost here at home when our timber goes abroad with little or no processing. British Columbians not only lose out on high-paying jobs that come from creating value-added wood products, they lose out on the provincial revenues that would be collected, then used to maintain roads, build schools, pay for nurses and otherwise support B.C. communities.

But when it comes to our southern neighbours and softwood lumber, we remain hamstrung. We lose out by remaining so dependent on them buying so many of our board feet, even as wildfires affect our ability to supply it. We know they want our lumber — with their economy finally recovering, they’re building more homes and need more dimensional lumber to frame those houses.

We also know our neighbours don’t want to pay much for that wood.

And so … we endure the usual belligerence and posturing that comes up whenever a Canada-U.S. softwood-lumber agreement expires. We listen to the usual arguments about how Crown ownership of most of our forestlands amounts to an industry subsidy.

We watch as the U.S. Lumber Coalition lobbies Washington for anti-dumping duties — ever since the Softwood Lumber Agreement expired last October, we’d been expecting new tariffs, and those expectations were realized in April, with B.C. softwood exporters seeing duties averaging 20 per cent imposed.

It will be interesting to see if the prime minister’s quiet consultations with American industry, and national and state government officials will help, and how B.C.’s new government will negotiate these tricky waters.

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