Forestry sector still healthy, despite report of decline, professor says

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Despite a federal report of a continuing decline in Canada's forestry sector, a University of New Brunswick professor says the industry isn't going anywhere soon.

Tom Beckley, a professor in the faculty of forestry and environmental management at the University of New Brunswick, said forestry is still relatively healthy.

A new report from Statistics Canada says the overall contribution of the forestry sector to the Canadian economy has declined since the mid-2000s.

The report says the industry was hit by a decrease in demand for lumber, paper and newsprint after the collapse of the U.S. housing market and because of the rise of online media.

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The number of communities where forestry is the main economic driver dropped from more than 400 in 2000 to 105 two years ago, the report found.

The sector's share of the gross domestic product has also declined, from 1.7 per cent in 2007 to 1.2 per cent in 2014.

Beckley said he wasn't surprised by the Statistics Canada's report but said the number of forestry-dependent communities isn't necessarily a good indicator of the health of the sector or the health of rural communities, even in New Brunswick. 

A lot of smaller mills in Canada have gone out of business, and the work has gone to fewer and larger mills across the country. 

"A lot of these places are extremely small and maybe had one small sawmill," he said. "It's almost a measure of their remoteness. As the sawmill industry has sort of concentrated, obviously some of those are going to disappear."

In New Brunswick, some of the closed operations include AbitibiBowater, a paper mill in Dalhousie, the Miramichi Lumber Products Inc. which closed in 2013, and Smurfit-Stone paper mill in Bathurst back in 2005. 

"We have lost a lot of mills," Beckley said. "The industrial structure has always been big fish eat the little fish.

He said the decline of forestry's importance to small communities could also be the result of woodlot owners having little access to markets, which can also hurt rural communities.

Statistics Canada also said forest product exports valued at $29.5 billion in 2016 fell from 12 per cent of total exports in 1997 to six per cent in 2016, while the share of jobs declined from 2.5 per cent to 1.1 per cent.

Loss of jobs

The report found the number of jobs in the forest sector declined 42 per cent from 1997, when there 351,675 jobs, to 2016, when there were 205,660.

Several years ago, a pulp mill could employ between 1,200 and 1,300 people, Beckley said.

"Every time a mill is … revamped they build it so it needs less human labour," he said.