Demand for forest products from unusual places

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Good news doesn’t always come from where you expect it to. The virus epidemic has caused a drastic drop in worldwide demand for many products, but an increase in other areas. One of those is notably tissue paper. That’s not what pulp from Slave Lake Pulp has historically been used for, but they’ll take it! The mill gets to stay open and people keep working.

Mill manager Tony McWhannel says SLP has kept working without interruption.

Not that things are ‘normal,’ exactly. McWhannel says strict physical distancing protocols are in place and seem to be working. They’ve also limited the number of outside people visiting the mill as much as possible.

“We all understand that consequences of either being sick or ending up like the Cargill plant,” he says. “Alberta Health has (been) very helpful assessing people, reducing anxiety related to false information and getting healthy people back to work.”

Good news also recently comes from the province of Quebec, which announced it would allow some construction to resume after a COVID shutdown of several weeks.

“Fingers crossed it continues,” says Kevin Albrecht, the manager of West Fraser’s Slave Lake plywood veneer plant.

Albrecht says the mill started back to full production as of the beginning of last week. That was after a couple of weeks of running a single shift; and that followed a two-week total shutdown.

Over at Tolko’s OSB mill, production continues more or less as usual. That’s the word from company spokesperson Chris Downey, who adds that employee safety continues to be a top priority.

After reducing production, Vanderwell Contractors’ sawmill is now back up to full complement, thanks to an improvement in the lumber market.

“Interestingly enough,” says general manager Ken Vanderwell, “the strong lumber sales are into China, (which) has largely recovered from the pandemic.”

The bigger challenges now, Vanderwell continues, are in the area of transportation logistics. There’s a shortage of truckdrivers in western Canada generally – the COVID crisis being at least partly to blame for that.
Getting lumber to port in B.C. to take advantage of the overseas demand is proving tough.

The other looming difficulty is meeting tree-planting obligations.
Vanderwell’s hopes to get four million seedlings in the ground this spring and summer. Planting contractors are facing “major operational changes,” Vanderwell says, due to the pandemic. “These seedlings need to be planted within in a small window of time to remain viable.”

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