British Columbia·MILL TOWNS

Logging town of Port McNeill wary of changes to forestry on B.C. coast

Changes to boost jobs in mills on the B.C. Coast could have a ripple effect for those who work on the harvest side of the business.

About 80% of people who live in Vancouver Island town rely on forest industry for their paycheque

James Furney with the Port McNeill Museum Society leans on a historic piece of logging equipment that has been placed at the town's harbour.

At Port McNeill's picturesque harbour, a historic steam donkey stands as a reminder of the logging industry that built the north Vancouver Island town.

It's a history James Furney with the Port McNeill Museum Society knows well.

He's also the son of legendary former mayor Gerry Furney, an outspoken champion of the town's place in B.C.'s resource sector.

Logging in Port McNeill dates back to the 1930s, but James Furney says industrial scale logging wasn't in full swing until the 1970s.

"We've been very fortunate that in the years of poor forest management we weren't really working here," he said. "The forest professionals have guided this area very well through its advent or its advance through industrial logging."

Logging roads criss-cross northern Vancouver Island. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

About 80 per cent of the roughly 2,000 people who live in Port McNeill rely on the forest industry for their paycheque.

"Here people come with the expectations that their grandkids will work in the industry because it's always growing back," Furney said.

But there are far fewer jobs in the forests around Port McNeill than there used to be.

Logger Dave Weymar watched the decline during his decades working in the industry. Now, he teaches a Vancouver Island University course called Fundamentals of Forestry to the next generation.

"When I got in in the 1960s, there was lots of work," he said. "The logging systems that they used, it was more labor intensive."

Much of that heavy lifting is now done by machines. At last count, about 12,000 people in B.C. work in logging — a figure that once stood at 18,000.

But in recent years, Weymar says demographics are shifting. People are retiring and his students are finding work.

Gaby Wickstrom was elected mayor of Port McNeill in the fall. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

He wants to see that continue and is wary of changes that are planned for forestry on the B.C. coast.

Over the next two years, the province says raw log exports will be scaled back to encourage more processing in B.C. 

Some of the wood waste that logging companies currently leave behind in the bush after logging will also be redirected to pulp and paper mills.

The aim is more jobs. But Weymar says the complexities of the logging business need to be taken into account in any changes.

"It's not cut and dried that if we banned export that it would be better, there would be more jobs," Weymar said. "It would certainly cut down on logging jobs, and I think it's quite possible we would hurt the mills."

The 'Namgis First Nation community of Alert Bay is a short ferry ride from Port McNeill. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

At the town office in Port McNeill, those concerns are shared by Mayor Gaby Wickstrom.

"It's very important that we get it right when they introduce legislation," she said. "In particular the raw log export legislation, we need to know what those changes will mean, because if the unintended consequences are not looked at, it has a very direct and quick ripple effect for us in a smaller rural remote community."

A short ferry ride from Port McNeill, another community is waiting for word on what its place will be in the revitalized coastal forestry sector.

The 'Namgis First Nation is located in Alert Bay, but its traditional territory spans large swaths of forest on northern Vancouver Island. "It's said that our territory has maybe the best lumber in the world," said elected Chief Don Svanvik.

Don Svanvik is the elected chief of the 'Namgis First Nation. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

The 'Namgis have had their own forestry company for about a decade. But other major logging companies hold most of the harvest rights in the region.

Fostering stronger business relationships with First Nations is one of the priorities in the B.C. government's plan to revitalize coastal forestry.

Svanvik says it's a step in the right direction, but it will require more than just some tweaking of the current system.

"We're struggling to get to the place where we can start having discussions of getting our land back in jurisdiction and being able to participate in the economy in that regard," he said.

Listen to the complete radio documentary below:

About 80 % of people who live in Port McNeill rely on the forest industry for their paycheque 9:32

Mill Towns is a series by CBC Victoria exploring how forestry-dependent communities on Vancouver Island view changes planned by the provincial government to revitalize forestry on the B.C. Coast.

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