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Proponents of mill restart offer different perspectives

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In light of concerns surrounding wood allocations being disrupted by a restarted mill in Fort Frances, proponents have assured the public wood supply wouldn't be an issue.

“I have never said, nor advised any of my clients, that one mill or one town should be favoured at the expense of another,” said Mike Willick, Fort Frances's forest tenure consultant.

“We need to look at the best solution for the region,” he added.

Willick told the Times a pulp mill needs fibre, not necessarily trees and pulpwood sized materials or crooked pieces are not desirable or suitable for Resolute Forest Product's sawmills in the region.

These materials are bypassed and do not show up in harvested area annual reports.

Currently, district sawmills Manitou Lumber and Nickel Lake Lumber primarily harvest red and white pine as well as spruce trees, while Norbord mostly uses poplar trees and birch.

The main party interested in restarting the mill, Rainy River Packaging (formerly known as Repap Resources), has said their operation would be based on black spruce and jack pine,

Sawmills also need to sell their byproducts and wood chips, so Willick suggested it could be a synergistic relationship between local sawmills and the restarted Fort Frances mill, which has happened historically.

Meanwhile, private land wood from Ontario, Manitoba, and Minnesota has also played a large role in furnishing the Fort Frances mill while it was in operation, according to Willick.

Currently there are 500-800,000 cubic metres of wood available for purchase in northern Minnesota due to a number of mill closures there in the last 15 years.

Willick says sawmill chips from Kenora, Manitou, and Nickel Lake Lumber have also been part of the supply for the Fort Frances mill.

He added that undersized tree tops and branches do not show in the inventory and that plans show volumes to be about 150,000 cubic metres a year.

An interested buyer of the local mill has also suggested it could run on about 20 percent recycled material.

“A solution is possible where the Sapawe sawmill, the Fort pulp mill and the Crossroute Forest all flourish,” Willick remarked.

“This would take a change in attitude by Resolute. Perhaps they have their arms around more committed volume than they can use across the region,” he added.

This would also need the backing of Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) to support proper forest utilization and regional economic development, Willick noted.

“What needs to be done is a minor refinement of wood flows into Sapawe from other [Resolute] sources so that the necessary volume of chips can move back to Fort Frances without compromising chip flows to Thunder Bay,” he explained.

Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry John Yakabuski said in March if a deal was brokered by someone who is prepared to operate the Fort Frances mill location, the MNRF would relook at wood allocation.

Meanwhile, Unifor national representative Stephen Boon pointed to 13 mill closures within 450km of Fort Frances in the last 15 years that suggest there should still be ample wood supply if the mill resumed some form of operations.

“It is nonsensical to now suggest with the drop in wood harvesting combined with the closures just near Fort Frances, that wood supply is a problem,” he said.

“With proper provincial oversight, regulations and simple adjustments in some wood allocation, there should be zero wood supply issues that would suggest Fort Frances should somehow just be added to the long list of permanent closures that crippled much of the forest sector in this region,” added Boon.

Boon argued there's always opportunities to re-allocate wood supplies and reduce unreasonable regulations to ensure all Ontario mills have access to a reasonable wood supply.

In regards to the Sustainable Forest License (SFL) for the Crossroute Forest, it states, “the forest resources for harvest pursuant to this licence are to provide a supply of forest resources to the existing forest resources processing facility of the company located at Fort Frances, Ontario.” 

The Crossroute Forest SFL is directly tied to the Fort Frances mill—not Resolute—and although it is no longer in operation, it was provided with a secure wood supply for decades with no impact on outside operations, Boon said.

“To suggest Resolute can close the Fort Frances mill, walk away and then maintain over 800,000 cubic metres of wood to re-direct outside the region is absolutely not how the forest tenure system has been designed,” he quipped.

“It has always been accepted that you use the wood or you lose it and every owner that operated the Fort Frances mill knew and accepted the fact the Crossroute Forest was tied to the local mill and they lost any access to that wood when they sold the mill and walked away,” added Boon.

Boon said it's also important to note that Resolute's other mills already have their own SFLs.

“Sacrificing the Fort Frances mill when we have lost so many jobs and mills already is absolutely ludicrous and wrong on every level,” he charged.

“The games need to stop now and the province needs to step up and use every tool it has to pressure Resolute to lift the current restrictive covenants that prevent a new buyer from restarting pulp and paper operations in Fort Frances.”

Meanwhile, the MNRF's responses to inquiries about the restrictive covenants imply they won't be taking action.

“As the former owner of the mill, any decisions regarding the sale were Resolute's to make, and any terms of the sale were made between Resolute and Riversedge,” said MNRF communications director Justine Lewkowicz.

“Identifying wood supply for a new, or restarted venture in Fort Frances will need to balance ongoing and future needs of existing operating mills in neighbouring communities,” she added.

“We will continue to work with the Town of Fort Frances and the Sustainable Forest Licence holder (Resolute), to ensure wood from the Crossroute Forest is utilized,” noted Lewkowicz.

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