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Northern forests are producing more than just two-by-fours

Trevor Laing may become one of the future poster boys of the new trends in value-added forest products.

Trevor Laing may become one of the future poster boys of the new trends in value-added forest products.

For some time, the Wawa entrepreneur had been eyeing the opportunity to start a commercial blueberry plantation  on the flat sandy soil of what once was the ancient shoreline of Lake Superior.

Next to the town's industrial park, Laing and his wife Tracy have invested $500,000 to acquire more than 600 acres from Buchanan Lumber.

They've bought a Cat 325 excavator and have big plans to start a growing operation within the next 8 to 10 years.
Both are counting on some fresh funding from a new regional economic development initiative for some start-up cash to their $2.5 million venture.

"We need employment here," says Laing. "The North is hurting and the writing is on the wall. I've got four kids and I don't think you could find four jobs now in Wawa."

Last fall, 132 pink slips were issued in Wawa following the closure of Weyerhaeuser's Oriented Strand Board mill.
Laing, a co-owner of the Wilderness Group, a Wawa reforestation and helicopter aviation company, has watched his company's primary tree planting business diminish to less than 20 per cent of their total work.

But a trip last year to Quebec's Lac St. Jean region where private growers export thousands of pounds of "blue gold" overseas to the Far East only solidified his beliefs.

Japanese buyers journey there to buy blueberries for $2.15 per pound wholesale for shipment to the Asian market.

A succession of mill closures in northeastern Ontario and hundreds of job losses has made it plain to all in the Superior East region that making better and smarter use of the forest is the way to go.

Six communities are determined to take charge of their local economies by bringing themselves together as one.

Last summer, the collective voices of the Northeast Superior Forest Community (NSFC) Corp. and their value-added forestry concept earned them recognition as one of 11 national funding recipients under the government's Forest Communities Program.

In April, Natural Resources Canada officials signed over the area's mayors $1.55 million spread out over five years to make it happen.

"We're really happy about this," says Chapleau mayor Earl Freeborn. "This has fallen on us out of heaven."

The town of 2,300 is home to a Tembec sawmill running three shifts. Two years before, it lost a Domtar sawmill and 120 jobs but Freeborn says they're still more fortunate than many of their neighbours.

"We're trying to replace those jobs. Hopefully this NRCan project will help us."

The new corporation comprises the forestry towns of Chapleau, Hornepayne, Manitouwadge, White River, Dubreuilville and Wawa.

Since all are in the same boat with the struggles in the forestry sector, the mayors have been meeting regularly since 2005 to work out some kind of shared economic strategy beyond the traditional lumber culture.

With the aid of document prepared by Laurentian University economics professor David Robinson, they believe there's opportunities to make bio-fuels and pharmaceuticals from native plants and to get into secondary manufacturing making doors, windows, mouldings, cabinets and furniture.

Freeborn says the old government Model Forest program was based on the science of generating better and more sustainable forests. This latest program deals with job creation and new industry.

What's essential to success is cultivating and encouraging home-grown entrepreneurs. Involvement by area First Nations is also key.

Though prospective projects are still in the "exploratory" stage, says NSFC corporation general manager Clara Lauziere, work must be done to inventory the available biomass.

Some private companies have agreed to donate land for this work.

Committees will be formed to pursue non-timber forest products, bio-energy, strategy and policy development, and First Nations relationships. Those groups will recommend projects for the corporation to pursue.

Eventually, Lauziere hopes the corporation be able to leverage other public and private funding sources.