Log sales to China have increased, but lumber sales to all three countries are much more valuable.

Forest policies need to add up

China is buying a lot more lumber than logs

We’ll hear a lot of talk about “raw logs” in the next few weeks, as B.C. political parties position themselves for the May 9 vote.

“Raw logs” is the emotional buzzword designed to bring the issue down to the bumper-sticker level of modern political debate. NDP politicians denounce the BC Liberals for presiding over a “500 per cent” increase in log, sorry, “raw log” exports, as sawmills have closed.

The BC Liberals respond that more jobs would be lost if further restrictions were put on log exports, the NDP doesn’t care about loggers, and so forth.

Fortunately, BC Stats has just produced its annual export trade figures, for all commodities including logs and lumber. They tell more of the story.

There has indeed been a steep increase in log exports to China, from next to nothing in 2007 to more than $400 million by value in 2016. Log exports to the U.S. declined 10 years ago and have ticked along at about $50 million a year since.

Log export value to Japan is consistently three times that of the U.S. in the past decade, which makes sense when you consider that Japan is the most finicky wood importer in the world. They particularly like our coastal red cedar, and pay handsomely for it, in log or lumber form.

Looking at export figures for sawn lumber, you begin to see that log exports are mostly a political sideshow. (See chart below.) The U.S., China and Japan are B.C.’s leading customers here as well, with lumber value running as much as 10 times log value in a given year.

Lumber exports to China climbed from minimal to nearly $1.5 billion a year by 2014, helping to keep B.C. sawmills running after the collapse of the U.S. housing market. As the U.S. has recovered, and the expiry of its border restrictions has created a fragile window of free trade in lumber, B.C. exports south have soared, reaching more than $4.5 billion in 2016.

Japan remains a steady and vital premium lumber customer, with export values of around $800 million annually. Note that lumber sales to Japan alone are worth as much as B.C.’s total log exports to the world.

China’s emergence as a major wood customer follows expensive marketing efforts over many years by the forest industry, the federal government and B.C. Now that our exports south are under threat again, Asia becomes more important than ever.

The BC Liberals say much of the increase in log exports is from remote locations with no mill option available. That’s places like the Great Bear Rainforest, where logging continues under new rules.

Economists will tell you that as with many industries, more jobs have been lost from new technology, in the bush and in the mill, than from log exports.

The BC Green Party has announced it would extend carbon tax to slash pile burning, to force logging companies to sell wood waste for pellets or other uses.

The forests ministry already does this by policy, applied only to locations where it can be economically done. It’s required when there is “clear demand” such as a pellet plant, where businesses would generally make the deal without government instruction.

David Elstone, executive director of the Truck Loggers’ Association, notes that slash is piled and burned to prepare sites for mandatory replanting. He argues the forest industry should get a break from carbon tax on fuel, since wood structures and products sequester carbon for longer than natural forests, where wood rots and releases carbon dioxide back the atmosphere.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

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