A group of University of British Columbia students and staff were in Quesnel recently to meet the people who make a living off of forestry in a variety of ways and to learn how the City of Quesnel is addressing challenges in the sector in a time of transition.
The City of Quesnel, College of New Caledonia (CNC) and University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) hosted a group of 19 masters students, researchers and faculty members from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in mid-October. The group was in Quesnel Oct. 14-16 and spent time visiting people whose livelihoods depend on the landscape, including trappers and hunters; taking part in a field tour with West Fraser Mills, learning about the impacts of the 2017 wildfires at Fishpot Lake Resort, visiting the Wells-Barkerville Community Forest and learning about non-timber forest products at Moose Meadows Farm in Bouchie Lake.
Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson addressed the group Thursday, Oct. 15 in the CNC Atrium.
He told the group that when he was first elected mayor in 2014, a mill had closed, and he saw a way to re-invent and transition. He and council decided to embrace the transition and take a leadership role. The current council, elected in 2018, also agreed to the City would lead the transition.
“We weren’t going to point fingers at the Province, we weren’t going to point fingers at the federal government,” said Simpson. “I think that’s a fundamental shift that we agreed that we were owners and we were responsible for the transition.”
Simpson says the other key is the City made the deliberate decision not to walk away from forestry.
“Many communities, when they’re in the throes of the loss of their main economic driver … the easiest path to diversification is to turn your back on your traditional industry because it’s in decline and why would you bother when it’s in decline and try to find that new shiny object or that new opportunity for you to grow,” said Simpson. “We decided as a council we were going to do both. We wanted our cake and to eat it too. We believed fundamentally that we can be a place where the forest sector can be re-invented from the ground up, from the landscape right through the markets and all the manufacturing in between, and at the same time, diversify our economy to take advantage of our community’s geography. So that’s the path that we’re on. It’s a two-fold path.”
Simpson told the group that as a result of taking the lead on transitioning, holding its Future of Forestry Think Tank process and getting the right people in the room, presenting its landbase and opportunities to re-think forestry, the City has been able to be designated a landscape-level pilot.
“The only way we can bring that landscape back is to think of it as a landscape, not as a place where we have to plant a whole bunch of trees and get sawlogs,” he said. “That begs the question of now what the heck do we do. That sawlog has ruled our forest management routine. If the sawlog is not going to be king, how do you commercialize that forest? Again, Quesnel is in a very unique position to start addressing that question.
“We’re one of the few communities that still exists with the level of manufacturing capacity right in our town,” he said. “We have the ability to look at what is the pivot that needs to happen in manufacturing. That’s really what council decided to do was in the absence of leadership from the province, from the federal government and from industry, we decided we wanted to lead. And our leadership had to put skin in it — we had to prove that we were serious. So we put the Forestry Innovation Centre in City Hall, and we put the staff there to run it.”
UBC professor Dr. Jeff Sayer says the students would normally be doing their field work overseas around this time, but due to COVID-19 and travel restrictions, they are staying closer to the university, and they made the trip to Quesnel.
“We’d heard about interesting things happening in Quesnel, so we came up in August to check it out, and it was indeed really interesting — lots of things we wanted to learn about were happening here,” he said. “We brought our students back this week to expose them to all the things that are happening and the ideas Bob Simpson has, but also with a view to maybe our research people getting involved and doing some research here in the future.”
Before they had even heard of Quesnel, they received a grant from the Canadian Research Council to look at Vibrant Forest Landscapes, a project that looks at opportunities for small and medium forest enterprises and the policies and laws and regulations that could encourage small enterprises, as well as the different uses of forests, such as hunting, trekking, recreational use, manufacturing special products, First Nations activities and community woodlots, explained Sayer.
“We don’t see the smaller scale as a replacement for the bigger scale,” he said. “You need a basic foundation to move the economy so the economy functions and people have disposable income to spend, and you can see that already here. We haven’t really got started on this project yet. We got it approved at the beginning of this year, and one of our ideas was to come and get these students to come here and look at all the things that are connected to forests that are attributed to livelihoods and try to get some ideas from those people about what sorts of obstacles they face.”
Sayer is also impressed with the College of New Caledonia and University of Northern British Columbia campus.
“When we came here in August and stopped by for a couple of days, we met with people from UNBC and from CNC, and we actually thought they might not like us to be here, they might be a bit competitive, they might think we were intruding — it’s the opposite,” he said. “They’re very keen to work together.”
These students are at UBC for 10 months for their masters degree, and Sayer hopes they can return to Quesnel.
“This has been a pretty good week, so I think we might like to come back,” he said. “We used to go to Gavin Lake, and we might still do that, and we usually go to Tofino for a week, but this is a pretty interesting place to bring [the students].”
Sayer says they are also interested in possibly working with the City’s forestry initiatives manager, Erin Robinson, to pursue their Vibrant Forest Landscapes research on small and medium enterprises.