FORT FRANCES, Ont. — A crack has developed in the efforts of the Town of Fort Frances to present a united front as it tries to save the former Resolute paper mill.
A letter from Rainy River First Nations to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry suggests restarting the mill would jeopardize the wood supply needed by numerous other operators.
This echoes an argument previously made by Resolute, which has warned about a harmful "domino effect" on its other mills and on other companies if any fibre is diverted from the Crossroute Forest.
The MNRF is currently preparing a forest management plan for the combined Crossroute-Sapawe Forest spanning most of the District of Rainy River.
In his letter to Minister John Yakabuski, Rainy River First Nations Chief Robin McGinnis says "As a First Nation and a regional stakeholder in the new Sapawe-Crossroute entity [a proposed joint management company comprised of industry and community stakeholders] we see no possibility of the Fort Frances pulp and paper mill starting up without completely disrupting the existing wood supply commitments served by the Crossroute and Sapawe forests."
McGinnis says his First Nation needs stability in its allocated harvest volume for the duration of a future Sapawe-Crossroute enhanced sustainable forest licence.
"Any change in these wood fibre allocations would be damaging to all current parties...as it is a 'zero-sum' game," the letter states.
McGinnis calls on Yakabuski to tread carefully as he contemplates possible forest policy changes in response to appeals from Fort Frances to change the wood harvesting system to expedite restarting its mill.
"We do not believe you should be seen to be choosing between one set of existing forest jobs or another hypothetically 'promised' set of pulp and paper mill jobs, notwithstanding Resolute's restrictive covenant," he writes.
When Resolute sold the mill to Riversedge Developments, it required a covenant which prevents another operator from negotiating with the province for a wood supply from the Crossroute Forest.
Tbnewswatch attempted to reach McGinnis for comment, but has not yet received a response.
Fort Frances mayor expresses surprise and disappointment
Fort Frances Mayor June Caul said she was surprised to hear about his letter.
"I was very taken aback and disappointed. When we had our public meeting, way back in February, he actually stood up and supported the mill starting up again," Caul told Tbnewswatch in an interview.
Noting that reopening the mill would create hundreds of jobs, Caul said Fort Frances has always had the best interests of the entire district in mind.
"From Atikokan to Rainy River, we care about all the other businesses that are involved with the wood industry," adding that the town has received expert advice that there is enough fibre in area forests to meet the needs of all current operators as well as the mill.
Stephen Boon, a representative of Unifor, said the closure of wood-processing operations across northwestern Ontario over the last 15 years has reduced wood consumption by millions of cubic metres annually.
"The simple reallocating of wood not being used...would easily ensure an ample wood supply for all existing operations and a re-opened Fort Frances mill," the union spokesperson said.
Fort Frances councillor Douglas Judson said it's important to hear and respect the perspective and interests of Rainy River First Nations without overlooking problems with the current licensing system.
"No one expects the province to slam the book shut on a going concern anywhere or to compromise those jobs," Judson said, "but we do expect the province to reflect on Fort Frances' experience with Resolute and ensure the governance structure of the ESFL provides a fair mechanism for new entrants to be considered for access to fibre."
He suggested that when another party is seeking wood fibre, there must be a mechanism for MNRF to "rebalance" fibre use across a region, so "allocations can be juggled in a way that supports everyone in a fair and equitable manner."