The crisis in B.C.'s forestry industry is shaping up to be a political opportunity for the province's official opposition party.

With B.C.'s next provincial election now just one year away, the NDP opposition says the Campbell government will pay a political price at the polls for policies that have left thousands unemployed in what was once B.C.'s No. 1 industry.

'There is an increasing divide in this province between rural B.C. and the Lower Mainland.'— NDP house leader Mike Farnworth

"Thirteen thousand jobs have been lost under the watch of that forests minister," said NDP MLA Doug Routley in Victoria on Monday, referring to Rich Coleman, B.C.'s minister of forests and range .

In the eyes of NDP house leader Mike Farnworth, the Liberal government's market-driven forest policies spell neglect for rural B.C.but opportunity for his party, as the May 12, 2009, provincial election begins to rise on the political horizon.

"The fact is that there is an increasing divide in this province between rural B.C. and the Lower Mainland, and the middle class, which is getting hammered," said Farnworth.

Traditionally, the NDP has drawn wide support from the large union vote in the rural forestry industry. Yet the New Democrats have been trailing the Liberals by about 12 points in the polls for some time, a gap Farnworth believes they can close as the forestry crisis continues.

But Coleman said he believes people will understand this isn't a crisis the government created but the result of downturn in the U.S. market and the rising value of the loonie.

"You've seen the dollar come up 15 cents ... You've seen a huge crisis in housing in the United States," said Coleman on Monday in Victoria.

The minister said he understands his party's policies are facing increasing criticism as the crisis in the forest industry deepens, but he's optimistic that a turnaround for the industry is about 18 months away.

Kamloops mill workers hold 'grand closing'

Eighteen months is not soon enough for laid-off workers in Kamloops, who held what they called a "grand closing" Monday to mark the permanent closure of the Weyerhaeuser sawmill and the loss of about 200 jobs in the Southern Interior city.

The facility was just the latest B.C. mill to close in the last two weeks. Hundreds of other mill workers in Nanaimo, Campbell River and Mackenzie have also lost their jobs, as demand for their product in the U.S. market dries up with the downturn in that country's economy.

Ed Repka, a United Steel Workers vice-president from Kamloops, who was with a union delegation in Victoria on Monday said the union was not having any success persuading the Liberal government to step in to keep the mills open.             

"They're saying, 'Our hands are tied … Let things play out and see what happens. We got the forestry roundtable,'" said Repka.

"We're here because the crisis is now, and not two years down the road."

Workers expressed similar frustration in Mackenzie, where the future remained uncertain after the Pope & Talbot mill was put on "temporary shutdown" after an attempt to sell that operation and two others failed.

That closure put roughly 260 people out of work, including Brian Vose, who moved to the Central Interior town three years ago to work at the mill, buy a house and raise a family.

"Since then, I've seen one sawmill drastically cut back, two sawmills close indefinitely, … a pulp mill close permanently, another sawmill shut down temporarily and our pulp mill go down," said Vose.

Mayor Stephanie Killam said this is one of many setbacks Mackenzie has had to endure, and the town's residents will need to "stick together" to weather the downturn.

But forestry is a boom-and-bust industry, and Killam said she has seen it all before.

"The early 80s was a really bad time for this community. We had three car dealerships [close]; we had lots of people's houses boarded up. Probably didn't hit us all at once like this has. … It was over a period of two or three years," Killam told the CBC on Monday.

"But you know what? The town survived. More things came in; more people came in."

The mayor said she plans to work on diversifying Mackenzie's economy to focus on tourism and mining, two industries that have grown significantly since the Liberals took over from the NDP in 2001.

Before that change in government eight years ago, the economic bust in the 1980s was first followed by a boom in union support for the NDP in the 1990s, and B.C.'s long-serving right-wing Social Credit government was replaced with nearly a decade of union-backed NDP governments, a political cycle the NDP is now hoping to repeat.

With files from Jeff Davies, Robert Doanne and Mike Laanela