Trade figures show the value of softwood lumber exported to China has surpassed the U.S. for the first time, sending powerful signals about the importance of the Asia-Pacific markets for B.C.'s economy and job prospects.

"China has become our most important market for lumber," said Pat Bell, the former B.C. Forests minister and the current Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation.

May was a record-breaking month for B.C. softwood lumber exports to China with 746,000 cubic metres exported — up 157 per cent by volume over the same month last year. From January to May, B.C. exported 2.8 million cubic metres to China, up over double from last year in both volume and value.

"I was shocked," Bell said. "I had to do the math three or four times to make sure that I was right."

He credits the expansion to work by the province and forest industry to diversify the market for B.C. forest products by expanding into China.

"This is the result of years of hard work by the provincial government and industry," Bell said.

"In only five months, we've shipped the equivalent of over 76,000 containers of wood to China — the equivalent production of approximately 14 typical Interior sawmills over this period. These shipments represent family-supporting jobs across the province and the continued success of our rural B.C. communities."

Chinese lumber sales employing 10,000 in B.C.

Bell — who also represents the Prince George-Mackenzie riding, an area dependent on its saw mills — said it's good news for B.C.'s forest industry.

"Mills are working today directly as a result of China," he said.

"Ten thousand people are working directly because of Chinese lumber right now. Across northern B.C., factories say their shipments to China are exceeding their shipments to the U.S. by four- and five-fold."

Statistics show China spent $3 million more on B.C. lumber than U.S. buyers in May 2011, and officials say the value of B.C.'s softwood lumber exports to all Asian destinations has now surpassed the total value of shipments to the U.S.

"We continue to see staggering growth in the amount of wood we export to China, so I'm not surprised that in May we shattered another record for lumber exports to the world's fastest growing economy," said Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, Steve Thomson.

"This is great news for British Columbians who depend on the forest sector for jobs that support their families."

Bell predicts lumber exports to China will keep rising, but only if Canada can corral enough rail cars and ships to get B.C.'s lumber overseas.