For Fort Nelson Mayor Gary Foster, the Northern Rockies continues to be a unique place to practice politics, noting the community makes the town and surrounding area what is it is.
A pioneering spirit can be found reflected in town hall itself, with a stuffed polar bear sitting in the lobby and a plaque outside council chambers that reads ‘The Bear Pit’.
“It’s the name of the chambers, and it has been since day one,” Foster said of the tongue in cheek title, noting the town hall was previously a hotel, The Polar Bear Inn.
Foster was elected mayor in 2018 and says he felt running for the position was the best way he could help the community.
“The economy hasn’t been the best here over the past decade, I ran for office to see what I could to make sure the Northern Rockies wasn’t in dire straits,” Foster said, noting he feels things have stabilized, but sees an opportunity for Fort Nelson to thrive.
Foster is keen to revitalize industry and is looking forward to large projects such as Peak Renewables’ proposed pellet plant and the Fort Nelson First Nation’s geothermal project.
“We’ve got the largest community forest here in B.C., and we’re always looking for opportunities where people want to come in and utilize some wood,” he said. “The whole community forest, we’ve got control of that, and it’s dedicated to creating employment here.”
The community forest is jointly managed between the municipality and the Fort Nelson First Nation, allowing 217,650 cubic metres per year to be cut.
“Our biggest challenge is the distance to market,” said Foster, noting he wants to see all wood types put to work. “You need to have a home for that – the OSB plant or the pellet plant, that was the home for the wood to free up the high value spruce trees,” he said, noting there’s aspen that can’t be left behind. “The two have to come together at the same time and that’s the trick.”
Peak Renewables plans to build a wood-pellet manufacturing plant at the old Canfor site, the tenure was sold last year for $30 million.It would produce 600,000 metric tonnes of pellets annually, to be exported to Asia, where pellets are burned, as an alternative to fossil fuels, to produce heat and power.
Foster says tourism is vital part of the Northern Rockies’ future, diversifying the economy amidst resource industries.
“It’s going to be a big thing for Fort Nelson, especially next year. I think we’re going to see a lot of people heading up this highway,” Foster said. “It’s important to supplement the economy, it’s not getting big dollars, but it sure helps even out the booms and the busts.”
He added agriculture is also a growing field in the region, with cattle and hay farming present.
“When you’re outside of Dawson Creek, you see those beautiful fields of canola, none of that is grown up here because of the weather. And we can’t grow any corn but what we can do is hay, among other things,” added Foster. “The ground is very fertile here.”
Tom Summer, Local Journalism Initiative, Alaska Highway News