Model of the Chemainus sawmill, one of several owned by Western Forest Products on Vancouver Island. (Don Bodger photo)

COLUMN Forestry remains a big part of the Island’s culture

Fond memories of my mill experience fuels concern for industry’s future

I always get concerned when I perceive threats to the province’s once mighty forest industry.

Western Forest Products, B.C.’s largest coastal lumber producer, has bought two sawmills in Washington over the last year.

WFP acknowledges a major advantage, among others, to having production facilities in the U.S. is that the lumber produced there is not subject to softwood lumber duties if intended for the U.S. market.

The company has assured it has no intention of abandoning B.C. anytime soon, but I still find it unsettling.

I remember when I first arrived in B.C. many decades ago, I was amazed at how easy it was to get a fairly high-paying job in one of the many sawmills that were running on the Island at the time.

All it took was for a guy to be fit and have a good attitude toward work to score a job at many of them, and I was delighted to be working within a day of my interview.

I had been working at a concrete plant that had laid me off between contracts at the time, so I thought that I was well prepared for the work I was expected to do.

It turned out to be the hardest job I’ve ever had.

I was assigned to the green chain, in which lumber of different sizes and dimensions move at a controlled rate and about 10 workers are each in charge of removing whatever sizes they are responsible for from the green chain and placing the lumber in ordered stacks.

Seems simple enough until a pile of lumber that you are responsible for comes along all at the same time.

You find yourself frantically trying to get them off the chain and into their stacks because if some of that lumber gets past you, the next guy down the line has to stop the chain so you can retrieve the wayward log(s).

Having the line shut down with everybody just standing there looking at you like an idiot as you apologize and haul the lumber back to their proper stacks is not a position you want to find yourself in too often.

So the next time I found myself overwhelmed by a multitude of lumber that I was responsible for, I just pulled them off the chain and dropped them at my feet until I could find the time to deal with them.

That was a mistake because there is no slack time on the green chain, so I’d stumble about tripping over those logs while I dealt as best I could with the new onslaught of lumber.

I got better at it as the weeks went by (I also lost about 10 pounds), and I began to really appreciate the hard-working mentality of the mill workers around me.

Some of them came from the logging side of the industry and said they were getting worn out sawing down trees and decided to get into the easier milling side of things.

After dealing with the green chain, I could only imagine what physical demands commercial logging requires.

I spent much of a summer working at the sawmill before I was called back to work at the concrete plant.

The experience taught me a lot, including to respect the hard work that forestry workers do every day.

It would be a shame to see the industry here become just another historical footnote.

(Robert Barron is a reporter with the Cowichan Valley Citizen. He can be reached at Robert.Barron@cowichanvalleycitizen.com).

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