Interview: Downie Timber CEO Nick Arkle on B.C. old-growth review process

Nick Arkle, CEO of Revelstoke-based mills Downie Timber and Selkirk Cedar, discusses adaptations to changes brought about by the ongoing B.C. old growth policy review process.

File photo: Workers sort lumber at the Downie Timber sawmill in Revelstoke. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer

The B.C. government’s ongoing strategic review of old growth forest practices in the province has generated considerable interest in Revelstoke, an area whose harvesting and milling sector has significant reliance on old growth forests.

In November, 2021, the provincial government announced another round of temporary deferrals of old growth harvesting in B.C. It followed an announcement of regional old growth deferrals in the Incomappleaux Valley area in September, 2020.

In addition, there have been several anti-old growth protests in the Revelstoke region, including a forest service road blockade in the Argonaut Valley starting in 2021 where protesters set up a camp blocking a forest service road.

In April of this year, the B.C. government updated on its progress to reach agreements with First Nations governments on its old growth review plans.

In late April following the announcement, we reached out to Nick Arkle, CEO of the Gorman Group, which operates Selkirk Cedar and Downie Timber Ltd. in Revelstoke. In a 30-minute audio interview, we sought Downie’s perspectives on the B.C. policy changes and how the major local employer is responding.

Listen here: Downie Timber Ltd. CEO Nick Arkle on old-growth review

Key points from the interview:

Downie short-term plans

Arkle said that Downie has adapted to many changes since it was purchased in 1990, including pivoting to different markets over the years, such as the Middle East, Europe and Japan, and the U.S. The change has affected the species of trees they milled.

Arkle said the current challenge to adapt to is changes to B.C. old growth policy and also changes brought by the B.C. government’s work to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the province.

“This is where the impact is on Downie Timber. It’s what does the future look like, what kind of volumes are going to be available to us? What’s going to be the cost of accessing those volumes?” Arkle asked, saying there is a need for predictability, which they don’t have now.

Arkle said the planning process for harvesting takes about two years, making it challenging to adapt to sudden policy changes. He said Downie’s tenure does have overlap with deferral areas, saying they have about 18 months worth of developed supply on hand.

“It’s critical that we understand where can we go in the short-term that might well overlap with some of the deferral areas,” Arkle said. “These deferral areas were just ones to be discussed were just ones to be discussed. It doesn’t mean that they get protected. Some will, some won’t. Some will be protected with modified practices, or allowed to harvest with modified practices. So it’s trying to understand where those areas are going to be.”

Long-term plans

File photo: Downie Timber has put safety protocols in place to help protect employees from potential explosure to COVID-19 while at work. The forest products industry is considered an essential service. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer.

Arkle said Downie is working on bringing together an Indigenous and community-led effort. “It really is about getting First Nations with us, looking at the local data, using Indigenous knowledge, getting the experts, sitting down together and figuring out how we can identify what really are meaningful deferrals, and not just a blanket deferral on anything that has a colour on a map.”

Deferral overlaps

Downie does have permits in place that overlap with deferral areas.

“There are some permits right now that have deferral overlaps on them. There are permits we have walked away from and said we’re not going to go into those, but these ones we do need to go into.” He said the plan would amount to 0.6% of old growth areas, saying it will tide the company over the next two years.

Arkle said Downie has a licence for 180,000 cubic metres in the Revelstoke area, but the company has only been able to access 120,000 due to a number of constraints. With the provincial policy changes, Arkle estimated a reduction to 65,000 cubic metres based on changes. “Those are huge impacts that we’re now having to try to adjust to,” he said.

He said one response to the fibre supply constraint he often hears is to find fibre elsewhere. Arkle said the company already sources a big majority of its fibre outside of its tenure. “Revelstoke is already a major net importer of logs,” Arkle said, saying only about 18% of the logs that go through the mill come from Downie license areas, saying they rely heavily on Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation, BC Timber Sales, and a “myriad” of trading arrangements with other mills. “We’re already pulling many strings to try and get the right log into the mill to make it successful.”

He said they need a “breathing space” now to work on longer-term plans.

Public views and social license

Sorting logs on the Downie Timber yard. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

Arkle acknowledge changes in “social license” around old growth harvesting, saying the company wants to work with parties involved to come up with a plan. “We have to work with our communities, we have to work with our Indigenous leadership and communities to come up with that balanced plan for the future, because it’s too important not to get right.”

For the full interview, see the SoundCloud app embedded above, or this link.

Aaron Orlando is a Revelstoke-based journalist who serves as creative director of and Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. He's been on the news beat in Revelstoke for the past 14 years, serving in senior editorial roles. If you have or call/text him at 250-814-8710.