British Columbia·Metro Matters

B.C.'s northernmost municipality hopes community ownership of forest can bring a community revival

Work on the application has taken two years, and shows the creative ways local governments can try and reboot traditional industries in the 21st century.

No B.C. community has suffered larger decreases in property values this decade than Fort Nelson

On the outskirts of Fort Nelson, B.C., are several mills and gas plants that have been shuttered for years. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

There was a time when Fort Nelson was the chopstick capital of the world.

The northernmost municipality in B.C. was once home to companies that made eight million chopsticks daily, produced untold strand boards for housing and sawmills that chopped up the huge swaths of aspen and spruce forests that dominate the region.

Those days ended a decade ago and the decline of the oil and gas industry in the years since has left the town, hundreds of kilometres from any other major community, in dire economic straights.

Now, it's waiting for final approval from the provincial government for what it hopes could start a turnaround — a community forest, with licences and allowable cuts managed directly by the local government and the Fort Nelson First Nations.

"Many will do back flips the day that we know something is going to happen," said Mike Gilbert, a development officer who has lived in the community for 40 years.

"Our neighbours have had a really rough ride and they're hanging in there. So, it's up to us to make this happen."

Work on the application has taken two years, and shows the creative ways local governments can try and reboot traditional industries in the 21st century.

But it also shows the limits of what they can accomplish on their own.

Northern Rockies Regional Municipality Mayor Gary Foster is new to the job, having defeated three-term mayor Bill Streeper last election. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Strain on families

For new Mayor Gary Foster, the possible return of the forest industry would bring his time in the community full circle, 40 years after he moved to town and immediately began work with Tackama Forest Products.

"Everyone's looking forward to this. We've had a lot of devastation in the property values here. I bought my house in 1992. The price I paid for it was $202,000. This year, almost 25 years later, the value is $176,000," he said.

With property values declining by over 60 per cent this decade, residents committed to staying in town have faced difficult decisions, with people working hundreds of kilometres away not uncommon.

"My husband is two on, two off. He's home for two weeks and then he's gone, and we're seeing a lot of families that are doing that," said Bev Vandersteen, director of the Chamber of Commerce.

While she says Fort Nelson has worked hard to diversify the economy, a community forest would give it a cornerstone industry again — and unlike traditional Crown licences, they could structure agreements so they wouldn't be at the mercy of companies that could choose to sit on the land, as she says Canfor has done for a decade or immediately export the logs to a more populated area for manufacturing.    

"It would give us some ability to control some of that wood ourselves and the ability to look towards local manufacturing which is key to any remote community," she said.

The decision by Canfor to suspend operations in Fort Nelson in 2008 — only to raise the idea of starting logging again, but shipping out the logs to a larger community — still provokes anger in the community. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

More legislation needed

Part of the reason the municipality can utilize the community forest structure is its unique structure and size. While 60 per cent of people live in Fort Nelson, the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality oversees all 85,000 square kilometres of northeastern B.C.

It means the forest's proposed size of 200,000 hectares can directly benefit one population centre, with no haggling between different jurisdictions.

If approval is granted, Foster says they will still need to find companies that will harvest the trees, manage the logistical challenge of utilizing both the spruce and aspen that intermingle in the region and agree to manufacture the wood locally — something that still isn't legally mandated, despite promises by the provincial government.

"It's vital to these small communities that we're actually attached to our resources. And I think Premier Horgan understands that. But he hasn't quite put the mechanisms in place yet in legislation and policy to actually do that," said Leonard Peterson, who owns the only small forest company that continues to operate in the area.

That's a lot of hypotheticals to deal with. But when you choose to live in an area so remote, you're used to challenges.

"Very quickly, I came to admire the grit of the people in town here. Come good days or bad days, they've always got a pretty stiff spine and they're always pulling together," said Gilbert.

While they wait, Fort Nelson prepares for a festival next month where it will display what it hopes will the world's largest snowman. It'll be over 100 feet tall, but right now it's just a large pile of powder. 

Then again, you can't reach new heights without a solid foundation. 

Metro Matters: On The Road is exploring how new city governments throughout B.C. are approaching age-old issues (some political, some not) in their communities.

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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