Local forestry sector is poised for growth

By Megan Walchuk

The future of forestry in northwestern Ontario is bright, green and growing, according to information presented to Fort Frances council by Mike Willick, president of Boundary Waters Forest Management Corporation.

BWFMC is a board of industrial, municipal, Anishnaabeg and Metis interests, supported by a small administrative staff, which works collaboratively to manage the forests, and forestry road network. They work within ministry guidelines to determine where roads are built and where forests are cut, and by which facility, to maximize efficiency and sustainability.

Willick was in council chambers to give an overview of the industry, and how the corporation is poised for growth into the future.

“It’s really promising what I’m seeing out there now,” said Willick, who has been in talks with interested new enterprises, including biomass, which holds considerable growth potential for the forestry industry.

“We’ve been out there actively trying to attract investors to use the underutilized biomass. And we’re talking about producing new products. That’s what this is all about. There’s a lot of volume out there, and we’ve had some interest,” he said.

Biomass is the material left behind after cutting – tops, limbs, undersized and defective wood, unsuitable to existing enterprise. Those scraps can be converted into fuel or electricity, through a variety of processes. As Councillor John McTaggart pointed out, technology is emergent in creating other products, including jet fuel, from biomass.

According to Willick, BWFMC commissioned a study to explore the possibilities growing in our forests. What they found is a vast source of untapped potential – when taking the 10 year cutting rates into account, the Boundary Waters forest holds 600,000 cubic metres of wood per year in the form of biomass. There’s an additional 200,000 cubic metres of “opportunity wood”, in the form of roundwood, which is unsuitable for existing mills.

Biomass is in line with government objectives of a green economy, he noted.

BWFMC is currently allowed a sustainable harvest of roughly 1.2-million cubic metres per year of merchantable wood, which is wood suitable for existing use. Currently, the existing users pull roughly 821,000 cubic metres per year, leaving roughly 400,000 cubic metres of merchantable fibre untapped.

That presents a lot of potential for the existing mills on the forest, said Willick. “There is room for more logging and trucking work in the district. Increased harvesting of the allowable cut will potentially lead to more biomass potential in the future.”

The forest holds two unique growth opportunities – one in using the full merchantable allowable cut, secondly attracting someone to create a business out of biomass, he said. For either to succeed, more fibre needs to be harvested.

“Simply put, we’re not harvesting all the trees that we can so we’ve got to enhance that a little bit,” he said. “And that’s good for everybody. It’s good for the contractors because they’ll have more work. It’s good for jobs and wealth created in the region. It leads to better forest utilization, better forest regeneration.”

An expanded harvest will also reduce costs for everyone – more companies using the same roads will reduce fixed costs, and each company pulling their preferred species from the same region brings greater efficiency.

That coordination has been identified as an area of growth for BWFMC.

“We have a situation where if someone wants the spruce and the jack pine but they don’t want to poplar and someone else wants the poplar, but don’t want the spruce and jack pine, it’s difficult to get that organized so that we can get all the trees out,” he said. “We’re working on that.”

Despite some challenges and growing pains, Willick said this new model of forest management, which came into effect in 2020, has benefited everyone. The collaboration has allowed the existing local pine mills to pull 30 per cent more wood from the forest, and a new local enterprise focussed on the valuable cedar supply has entered the market.

“I’m surprised at how successful this management option has been for the forest. We’ve demonstrated really successful, sustainable forest management practices,” he said. “The cooperative dialogue on the board has been wonderful. It’s just really reduced the conflicts on the board about things that go on in the forest.”

The previous model had the Sustainable Forest Licence held exclusively by large corporations which allowed them to make unilateral decisions without necessarily consulting with other companies dependent on the forest.

“The days of the past of being in the dark, when it was a single entity, large company SFL are done,” he said.

Forestry is a multi-million dollar industry for northwestern Ontario, noted Willick. The road network and base forest management costs alone are an $8-million investment annually. Extracting the wood injects another $45-million into the economy each year.

“And that is just the money it takes to get the tree from the forest into the millyard. And then we’ve got the benefit that goes on in the mill,” he said.

And there’s room for growth. The wood supply, despite the efforts of foresters over the decades, is currently at a low point. But the investments they made to mitigate the slump, through regeneration and sustainability practices, means over the coming decades, northwestern Ontario will enjoy a bounty of wood, and the potential for a booming industry.

That’s something Willick hopes people will consider as they explore career paths, both right now and into the future.

“We need to be able to harvest more and we need to be able to truck more. That is an opportunity if we could get somebody, get young people, interested in setting up and working in the bush and driving trucks,” he said. “That’s been a big challenge here and right across the province.”