Former Quesnel MLA, mayor Bob Simpson says the forest industry downturn and housing crisis are intersecting and need bold steps by government to help both simultaneously. (Frank Peebles photo - Quesnel Cariboo Observer)

Former Quesnel MLA, mayor Bob Simpson says the forest industry downturn and housing crisis are intersecting and need bold steps by government to help both simultaneously. (Frank Peebles photo - Quesnel Cariboo Observer)

Quesnel Ex-MLA calls for swift action to save industry, communities

Government needs less politics to advance forestry, housing: Simpson

Bob Simpson is a former MLA and mayor for Quesnel, with a background in teaching and forestry. Those two latter conditions were on stage together at the event he helped found, the Quesnel Future of Forestry Think Tank.

The two-day event on May 2-3 showcased a stellar collection of industry minds, all focused on how the city in B.C.’s heart of gold could take the forest sector to whatever its next levels might be.

He started off with a written statement:

“The City of Quesnel is at the epicentre of the beetle epidemic, and to illustrate the depth of this problem, it will be useful for the members of this Legislature to hear what this community faces in the next few years. The sustainable annual allowable cut for Quesnel Timber Supply Area was previously set at 2-million cubic metres. In order to address the mountain pine beetle, it was lifted to over 5-million cubic metres. The mills in our area are now ramping up to process that volume. However, potentially in as few as eight years, the allowable cut in the Timber Supply Area will drop to somewhere around 1-million cubic metres. That is an 80 per cent drop – an 80 per cent drop in a forest dependent community that has 90 per cent of its economy dependent on that resource. In fact, the total volume of post-beetle timber that may be available in the entire Quesnel Forest District could potentially be just enough to supply the one new supermill (Canfor’s Plateau operation in Vanderhoof) that is being built as we speak.”

Simpson explained where that prognostication came from.

“That was in September of 2005. It was my first speech in the Legislature. At the time, I was asking for a collaborative panel of all members of the legislative assembly to go out and ask the question, whether it was eight years or 15 years from now, what are we going to do for a plan for what is an obvious conflation of two things: the mountain pine beetle AAC (Allowable Annual Cut) coming down, and the fact that we’d ramped the industry up for a diet that is not going to be sustainable…Then 2022 hit, and everyone said oh my god, why didn’t we see this coming?

The very first think tank, co-founded by forester and facilitator Mike Simpson and Quesnel’s forestry initiatives manager Erin Robinson, was held in 2018 and Simpson said from this year’s stage “Mike asked at the very first think tank: we are facing unprecedented challenges. Are we mounting an unprecedented response? And I have to say, sadly, the answer is still no. We’re stuck in a weird loop where we have a lot of aspirational hope, but we can’t get to action.”

With little time to adjust a local economy without massive upheaval to families and community stability, said Simpson, work had to happen fast and government is behooved to act in ways it isn’t typically comfortable: big investments, quick decisions, and cross-partisanship. The four-year electoral cycle creates an decision-making sequence that spins the tires of innovation in the mud of politics. It has to stop, he said.

At the heart of the solution is housing. The B.C. population desperately needs it, and the forest industry utterly depends on home-building. Simpson gave an example of what the City of Quesnel did to play a part in that double condition.

Quesnel proactively changed the Official Community Plan and zoning process to include additional suites and carriage houses, he explained.

“We got no uptake.”

The reason they heard was too much “soft cost,” which means bills charged by City Hall like building permits and design fees.

To address that, said Simpson, with the funding help of Northern Development Initiative Trust, pre-approved plans were filed at City Hall for anyone to use for free.

“We still didn’t have uptake.”

Upon deeper investigation, the real reason for the stagnant home-building situation finally emerged: “there were no contractors to build them.” The labour shortage was underway and is well understood across the continent by now.

So the next step towards a solution was contacting Wynton Global Homes to pre-fabricate houses, so if someone wants to buy one, once the concrete pad is in place, the house can be assembled in less than a week.

Why, said Simpson, can’t public buildings also be prefabricated and at the ready for assembly, like seniors complexes, schools, and so forth? They can be impressive buildings, great places to be employed, live, and do the public’s work, but prepared in pre-made components so they are assembled quickly and maximizes a very stressed labour pool. It also maximizes an important local material: wood.

“We have to commit to systems change…by moving into larger scale modular mass-timber construction, and we’re going to need help with that,” Simpson said.

The four big asks of government, with the help of opposition parties, said Simpson, is to quickly streamline regulations, invest heavily in the new forestry realities, establish programs to ensure it won’t sputter after initial launch, and start buying mass-timber-construction buildings for schools, social housing, public offices, etc.

READ MORE: The future is modular

READ MORE: Mayor of Quesnel meets with B.C. government to advance ideas on forest management, fibre manufacturing