Forestry workers waiting for axe to fall

Aaron
Aaron Beswick
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Industry

When Holson Forest Products runs out of logs at the end of this month, it will shut down its mills and put 30 people out of work.

Holson's fate and that of Roddickton have been intertwined since the company took over the old Northchip sawmill in 2003.

Roddickton - When Holson Forest Products runs out of logs at the end of this month, it will shut down its mills and put 30 people out of work.

Holson's fate and that of Roddickton have been intertwined since the company took over the old Northchip sawmill in 2003.

So, when the mill's big machines go silent, so will Roddickton.

"Just a breeding ground here now for Alberta," said yard and production supervisor Trevor Blanchard, picking at a sandwich.

"Suppose I'll end up keeping the family home, fly back and forth and bring the money home to (Premier) Danny (Williams)."

The Roddickton sawmill has three lunch rooms, and its imminent closure was the elephant in each as conversation bounced around the topic.

"Even the breeding's getting pretty slow around here," added Jason Whiteway, breaking the tension with laughter.

"Tell Danny we need more than $1,000 to pay for oil."

Jokes aside about the premier and the incentive paid in an attempt to help boost the birth rate, Roddickton's sawmill workers are deciding whether to stay or go and want to hear from their government.

"We feel forgotten," said Blanchard who, like Whiteway, has a young family.

Both recently had interviews with the Iron Ore Company of Canada in Labrador City.

Natural Resources Minister Kathy Dunderdale said they'll have to wait a bit longer for answers.

"While I appreciate the anxiety people are going through, we have to do this right and wait until the private partners come through to me and say 'yes,'" she said last week.

Holson Forest Products is just the latest casualty of a North America-wide forest industry downturn that has seen large mills closing across the continent. The writing was on the wall for Northern Peninsula sawmillers and harvesters last November when Corner Brook Pulp and Paper announced it wouldn't be taking their pulpwood anymore. The province made a deal to keep them buying Northern Peninsula pulpwood until March 31, then that deal's up. Smaller trees used for pulpwood and ones used for saw logs are interspersed on the peninsula - harvesters can't afford to cut one and not the other.

Previous discussions between the government, the province's seven sawmill owners and woods contractors revolved around industry building a commercial wood pellet production plant. The proposal would have seen government buildings converted to wood pellet heat from oil, and incentives to promote a domestic market.

Dunderdale said a study commissioned by the government on the feasibility of a pellet plant is being analyzed. The problem they've found is that the province doesn't produce enough wood fibre to supply two pulp and paper plants and a pellet plant large enough to penetrate European markets.

Europe, where pellets are burned to generate electricity as a green alternative to oil-fired power plants, is the only large market in existence for wood pellets.

"The report looks into what we have available to us," said Dunderdale. "We're looking at the domestic market and the economies of scale. We have to do this right, put the industry on a secure foundation."

Roddickton Mayor Ray Norman said there's a desperate need for a solid alternative and he's willing to wait - a little while anyway - for a viable solution.

"We're a one-industry town," said the mayor. "It's going to drastically affect not only the town but the whole area."

Norman estimates 100 people will be affected by the fallout if a solution isn't found.

Garland Jenkins is one of them.

"Like the old fellas say, 'She's gone to the walls of the wind,'" Jenkins said as he sharpened a bandsaw blade in the Holson Forest Products maintenance shed. For the past five years he's sat in that chair, averaging 50 blades a day.

It's quiet and tedious work and that's just fine with him.

"All I know is forestry," he said.

The 60-year-old has spent his years in camps and mills throughout Northern Ontario and Newfoundland. Thunder Bay, Armstrong, Kitchener, Stephenville - he knows what it's like to follow work in a bumpy industry.

"You get used to moving - I've got a son-in-law with a business, building decks and doing fence posts in Kitchener," said Jenkins, not taking his eyes from his work.

"I'll go work out my last five years with him. It's too bad though, this was a good company to work for."

The Northern Pen

Organizations: Holson Forest Products, Iron Ore Company of Canada

Geographic location: Roddickton, Newfoundland, Alberta North America Kitchener Europe Northern Ontario Thunder Bay Stephenville

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