Last week, under partly-cloudy skies, Geoff Battersby, the chair of the Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation, planted a small cedar tree in a cut block along the Key Forest Service Road overlooking Lake Revelstoke and the Downie Arm. Across the lake, the iconic Frenchman’s Cap was shrouded in clouds. The tree was about the 10.5-millionth planted by RCFC in its 20 years.
In 1993, the Revelstoke forest industry was in a state of transition. The dark years of the 1980s – when Downie Timber was closed for several years – were in the past, but the industry was still on shaky ground.
Downie’s struggles in the 1980s meant it lost its tree farm licenses. As a result, very little wood being logged in the area was going to Revelstoke mills. The land in the area was grouped into one large tree farm license – TFL 23, which stretch south and north of town and was owned by Westar Timber, a Vancouver-based company.
“The land use debates, it was in the hey day of that,” Jack Heavenor, one of the owners of Downie Timber at the time, told me. “There were serious campaigns going on to greatly reduce the level of commercial forestry and to set aside large parts of forests for no commercial activity.”
Amidst that backdrop, Westar decided to sell off its forest licenses, including TFL 23. The large license was divided in two. South of Revelstoke, it went to Pope & Talbot. North of Revelstoke, Evans Forest Products, which owned a mill in Golden amongst several others, offered to buy the license and a mill in Malakwa for $9 million.
“The timber supply basket in the Revelstoke area, if it had gone to Evans, it would have had a fairly significant impact for Downie and for the community,” said David Raven, who was the manager of the Revelstoke forest district. “And the community had a long history of seeing the trees going past its doors.”
The matter reached its head in the fall of 1992. During public hearings on the sale, the City of Revelstoke intervened opposing the deal. In October, about 500 people came out to a hearing at the community centre that lasted for four hours.
“The hue and cry in those days was local control of local resources,” said Dr. Geoff Battersby, who was mayor at the time and a key political leader behind the start of RCFC. “It was always a concern with the fact there was all this wood being cut locally but none of it was being processed locally, so that was the community interest.”
Ultimately the Evans’ deal required ministry approval. In December, acting forest minister Art Charbonneau turned down the sale, saying “the proposed transfer, as submitted, would not balance the social and economic impacts on (Revelstoke, Golden and Sicamous).”
Evans was given the opportunity to come up with a new deal, and the City of Revelstoke also started working on its own proposal to buy the TFL. For the next few months, the issue graced the front page of the Revelstoke Review. The city hired a consultant to study the TFL and determine its value.
“Myself and a few other people thought that if the city got involved in a tree farm licence, as owners, that would have a positive impact on a trend towards broader public support of forestry,” said Heavenor. From a business perspective, a community forest would help ensure Downie’s timber supply.
Not everyone supported the city’s involvement in buying the TFL. According to Heavenor, there was opposition in the NDP government in Victoria from people who didn’t want to see the timber go to the non-unionized Downie mill. There was also a right-wing contingent in town who didn’t think the government should be involved in business.
Evans came up with a revised deal that would see 35 per cent of the wood cut go to mills in Revelstoke, but the city opposed that agreement, saying the allocated wood was all low-grade, while the high-grade wood would go elsewhere.
In early February 1993, the two sides came to an agreement to split the TFL 50-50. The license was valued at $7 million. Garth Langford, the city’s consultant, said the deal would provide “an excellent return to the city.”
According to the Review, the city would pay for its share of the land using $1 million in reserve funds that came from the sale of the old Illecillewaet Dam. Three mills – Downie Timber, Cascade Cedar and Kozek Sawmill, would contribute to the sale in exchange for 50 per cent of the annual cut. The rest would come from a bank loan.
“The fact the community felt so strongly about this and wanted to do it was what made the corporate partners come on board, because it showed community support, and that’s not enjoyed by a lot of mills elsewhere in the province,” said Battersby.
Because of the size of the deal, the matter had to go to referendum. An intense battle was waged in the local media, with a big advertising campaign in support of the deal and a letter writing campaign opposing it. On Feb. 20, 1993, Revelstokians voted 76.8 per cent in favour of the agreement, with turnout at 60 per cent of voters.
“The fact the TFL was purchased by the city was a major difference from other tenures,” said Raven. “It was not given to the city by the province like in other tenures, it was purchased.”
Evans and the city divided the TFL into north and south line, with the Goldstream River being the dividing line. The city opted for the southern half, around the Downie Arm, a 119,000-hectare parcel named TFL 56.
In April 1993, the city established the Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation. It was unique at the time – only Mission, B.C., had a community forest then. Revelstoke differed in that RCFC was set up as an arms-length corporation run by a seven-member board of directors, whereas Mission’s forest was run as a department of the city.
The board was to be made up of four city councillors or city staff, and three members of the community. The city has 100 per cent ownership, with the partnering forestry companies getting the rights to 50 per cent of the timber, at cost.
Doug Weir, the city’s director of economic development, was named the general manager, though he was quickly replaced by Bob Clarke, who came from Canfor’s operations in northern B.C. He managed RCFC for its first 14 years.
“It was something really unique,” Clarke said. “I think it’s still unique today where you have a community that puts their own money on the table to buy this thing with three industry partners mixed in.”
For much of the time, the company turned a profit and built up a steady supply of reserves. It did this despite some significant challenges. Notably, there was a silviculture deficit and millions of trees needed to be planted. There was also the challenge of logging on the steep slops of the B.C. Interior, and it had to be profitable.
“I think the ground itself, the terrain and the trees and the amount of low-grade (timber) – all those things required a level of management,” said Clarke, who left RCFC in 2007 and now calls Sorrento, B.C., home. “Also being sensitive to the community’s values for the areas. We had everything from rabid log it all to save it all. Somewhere in there we had to find the happy medium where we were sensitive to the values that were out there.”
The city was breaking new ground with the founding of RCFC. Since then, community forests have spread throughout the province. According to the British Columbia Community Forest Association, there are now 57 community forests either existing or in the planning stages.
RCFC was profitable for its first decade, building up sizable retained earnings that it re-invested back into the land. It posted its first loss in 2003-04 – about $500,000 – the result of a global drop in timber market prices. It endured a string of losses during the recent global downturn and has posted a small profit the past two years. A few years ago, large areas of the TFL were set aside as mountain caribou habitat and RCFC’s average annual cut was reduced to 90,000 cubic-metres from 100,000 cubic-metres.
Last week I spent a day touring a portion of TFL 56 with general manager Mike Copperthwaite and operations manager Kevin Bollefer. Next week I will look at what goes on at the TFL today. Part three will look at the future of RCFC.