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OPINION: Ontario needs to press reset on the forestry sector

Forestry experts push for independent panel to investigate lack of investment in the industry
Exterior view of of Domtar's former paper mill in Espanola, Ont. (CNW Group/Unifor)

The state of Ontario's forest industry, particularly the pulp mills that anchor it, is a matter of concern that demands immediate attention from the provincial government.

There has been inadequate public and private investment in the sector causing a significant loss of production capacity.  

The industry has seen a continuous decline over the past few decades, leading to a significant decrease in operating mills and a substantial drop in harvest levels. Job losses have unfortunately been a consequence of this downward trend.

The recent announcements that two of Northern Ontario’s remaining four pulp mills have been idled indicates that the sector is not well.

Prior to Oct. 4, there were four large pulp mills operating in northwestern Ontario along Highway 17, consuming 7 to 7.5 million cubic metres annually; included in that is a significant volume of sawmill residuals.  

With the announced idling of the Terrace Bay and Espanola pulp mills there are now only two mills operating. Ontario just lost over 3 million cubic metres of consumption, not including what will happen to lumber production if regional sawmills don't find a home for their residuals.

Neither the government nor the forest industry seem to have a response to this situation. Ontario deserves better. 

Sustainably produced forest products are climate-friendly, in demand, and can provide a much greater contribution to Ontario’s economy than they do now.

In light of this, it is imperative for the Ontario government to establish an independent expert panel to delve into why there has been a lack of major investment in Ontario's forest sector for the past two to three decades. This panel should be composed of experts with an international perspective and comprehensive understanding of the needs and types of new and upgraded facilities that will be competitive in the global forestry sector.

This review is crucial and the need immediate. Recent announcements in the global forestry sector highlight the pace of development elsewhere. Companies in other jurisdictions are reconfiguring their pulp mills to produce a range of products including chemicals and energy, along with expanding into mass timber, laminated veneer lumber, wood fibre insulation, and wood pellets. Almost none of these investments are being made in Ontario.

In Ontario, potential new entrants face obstacles accessing timber due to outdated government wood supply directives. These commit millions of cubic metres of wood to existing mills that are simply not used.

To address these issues, the proposed panel, comprising both domestic and international specialists, is essential and overdue. The estimated cost of this review falls between $1.5 and $2.5 million, considering the necessary support services, meeting and travel expenses, research costs, and expert fees. 

This investment will be vital and well spent in providing actionable recommendations to reinvigorate Ontario's struggling forest industry. We need sustainable growth for Northern Ontario communities and families. 

Jeremy Williams, Arborvitae Environmental Services Ltd.

Bud Knauff, R J Knauff & Associates 

Tom Clark, CMC Consulting

Don Huff, Ecostrategy