Quesnel is one of those towns, like many others in British Columbia’s Interior, where surprisingly little has changed in decades. The surrounding landscape is dominated by pine plantations and service roads that lead to old gold mines.
Home to 12,000 people, the community lies 630 kilometres north of Vancouver along the highway that follows the Fraser River through central B.C. It’s a forestry town, and you could be forgiven for assuming that local politicians would want to see logging continue in the same old way.
How, then, to explain Mayor Bob Simpson, who sounds like a Green Party candidate and wants nothing less than to revolutionize the biggest industry in the province?
When Jules-Maurice Quesnel, who travelled in Simon Fraser’s expedition in 1808, arrived here, he described what was then called New Caledonia by settlers as a place where, “there is nothing to be had but misery and boredom.”
That’s hardly the vibe given off by Simpson. In a talk to visiting forestry students last fall, he sounded more like a fired up young environmentalist than a 65-year-old veteran B.C. politician. In fact, he channelled Greta Thunberg’s speech accusing world leaders of doing nothing but “blah blah blah” about climate change.
“You would think that politicians would stop blah blah blahing and start getting real,” said Simpson. “Just stop subsidizing the petrochemical industries and put it elsewhere — it’s not that hard.”
During his eight years as mayor, Bob Simpson has been intent on making the town a model for sustainable forestry. The story of his unlikely mission to transform the region’s biggest industry begins with his unlikely rise in the province’s politics.
Born in Glasgow, his family relocated to Canada, eventually ending up in Winnipeg when he was 10 (he has long since lost the Scottish accent). Like his father, he worked at the now-closed Brenda copper-molybdenum mine in the Okanagan. He went on to get degrees in history and biology at the University of Victoria, where he met his wife, Trish.
It was while volunteering in Sudan in his early 20s that Simpson first came to understand how devastating the human impact on the environment could be. He had read about how lush and green parts of North Africa were.
But when he arrived in Khartoum in the 1970s, armed with books for women and schoolchildren, it was a desert as far as the eye could see. He couldn’t believe what had happened in a generation. “From the train you would see the land base was really blown out. I saw how dramatic and fast we can interfere with the land base and natural ecological cycles."
Simpson moved from Victoria to Quesnel with his wife in the ’80s to teach science at the community’s one high school. He would take students on field trips to surrounding woodlands as part of the forestry program he started at the school.
One day he stood with the students in a clearcut for the first time and realized that something was very wrong with the industrial forestry model. “You think, is that the right way to do things?”
He left teaching to take a role in organizational development at the human resources department of Weldwood of Canada, a forest products company, for 10 years.
He had a brief stint as a BC Liberal in the ’90s, campaigning for Gordon Campbell’s successful 1993 leadership campaign before becoming disenchanted with the party’s neoliberal slant.
“Corporations aren’t going to solve the climate crisis,” he says now. “They’re profit-centric and not collectivist. Whenever we’ve had to change anything it’s always been through legislation and regulation.”
A decade later, Simpson launched himself into politics with the NDP. In 2005, he was elected MLA for Cariboo North, acting as forestry critic for the NDP until he was removed from the party’s caucus for criticizing its leader five years later.
In one of his regular columns for the local newspaper, Simpson criticized then-premier Campbell’s “bizarre” speech to the Union of BC Municipalities. But he got into trouble for writing that then-NDP leader Carole James had “little concrete to offer” and was kicked out of the party.
Now Simpson says he likes being free from party politics. It lets him offer his own vision for the community’s future — one that neither the BC Liberals or the NDP might embrace.
“We have to move away from a timber-economic way of looking at things. The primary objective has to be ecological resilience. I think it’s got to be the ecology, stupid. If we don’t put the ecology first then we don’t have an economy.”
Simpson is full of quotes like these; a pretty radical statement for nearly any politician outside the Green Party, let alone the mayor of an Interior resource town. But people in Quesnel seem to admire his straight talk.
In 2014, when he ran for mayor of Quesnel for the first time, Simpson won 70 per cent of the vote against the incumbent, Mary Sjostrom. His self-funded campaign spent $11,000 less than his rival, which makes his victory even more remarkable.
“The incumbent council was used to doing nothing for many years,” he said. “I wanted to make more principled and courageous decisions.” His platform was reform.
When he ran again in 2018, he was unopposed. Nobody thought they could beat him. This is a man who was named B.C. triathlete of the year, after all.
This year, Simpson faces three challengers, including Ron Paull, a 17-year council veteran. Paull told a candidates’ forum that his issues would include city spending and the number of in-camera council meetings.
The City of Quesnel consistently votes for the BC Liberal party in provincial elections and the Conservatives in federal elections. But Simpson’s message cuts across the left-right divide. When I ask residents why they think Simpson keeps winning, the most widely shared explanation is that he’s a straight shooter who thinks politics should be about good governance. His background in the forestry industry helps. While some find him abrasive, his low tolerance for bullshit has generated enough fans to turn out and vote for him.
“Voters appreciate his frankness, even if they don’t agree with him,” says Adam Schaan, his former campaign manager. Plus, Simpson has 15 years of political experience and connections that open the right doors in Victoria. Over the course of one week in the fall, he met with 19 cabinet members.
Simpson says he got into politics to envision an alternative future for the world and his community.
In Quesnel, he has big ideas for how he wants the forestry industry to change.
Until 1979, the Government of British Columbia didn’t think the province could run out of trees. The trees companies replanted grew quickly and modern firefighting made sure the new pine plantations didn’t go up in flames. But after 50 years of extensive logging and fire suppression, the catastrophes started.
Quesnel was the epicentre of the mountain pine beetle epidemics in the 1990s and 2000s. The monocultures of pine were fertile ground for the beetles to spread as the climate warmed. Unseasonably warm weather let them spread northwards and they bored their way into the innards of millions of trees, leaving unsellable husks. Across Canada, 53 per cent of the merchantable pine volume was lost.
Simpson watched as loggers raced to cut down the standing dead wood before it rotted. He knew it couldn’t last. It would be 40 years before Quesnel’s forests and the industry could recover. Forty years without many of the jobs the industry provided.
Then came the megafires.
Three years into Simpson’s term as mayor, the 2017 Green Mountain Fire threatened to wipe out Quesnel’s communications towers, half an hour southeast of town. If it had, the town would have been evacuated.
The fire eventually merged with several others to become the Plateau Complex Fire, with 545,150 hectares of forest ablaze. Imagine the entire province of Prince Edward Island on fire. It was the largest wildfire in B.C.'s recorded history.
After a fire like the Plateau Complex, the landscape goes lunar. Soils turn hydrophobic, rain running off the surface. Roots burn down to the bare minerals. Four years later, the only thing to grow here is fireweed and a few mushrooms.
“We’ve dug our own hole and now we’re trying to dig ourselves out. I don’t know the answer but what we’re doing right now, it’s not working,” Matt Duran, a firefighter from Quesnel, tells me on a walk through the graveyard of burnt-out trunks that was once Green Mountain.
From Quesnel’s centre, you’ll see forest blanketing the hills. But it’s not the dark green pine plantations you’d expect in northern B.C. Instead, the leaves are yellow with trembling aspen and poplar trees — the unlogged species that grow in the wake of disturbances. When the clouds lift, you can see further to the fire-scarred landscapes that pockmark the mountains.
A disaster on the scale of a megafire could make people think about changing things.
Yet while the doors to city hall still bear handmade paper heart thank you notes to the firefighters, citizens seem to have moved on.
The unprecedented disaster has not brought about an unprecedented response from the province. Quesnel resident and retired forester Ted Traer said he had hoped the disasters would bring needed change. But they didn’t.
“It’s such a shame when they waste a perfectly good crisis.”
But Simpson decided not to.
In Quesnel’s beige city hall building there’s now half a floor that looks like it houses a hip tech startup, with a palatial bathroom and locally produced wooden furniture. This is the town’s Forestry Innovation Centre: a $3-million initiative by Simpson to launch a paradigm shift in the way we see forests.
It’s the only one of its kind anywhere in the province, funded by grants from the Forest Enhancement Society of BC, the Union of BC Municipalities, the Northern Development Initiative Trust, the Red Cross and the provincial government’s Forest Employment Program.
Today’s managed forests are poorly adapted to wildfires and climate change. Simpson wants to change that.
In 2018, the Quesnel Future of Forestry Think Tank brought together 65 people to figure out how to transform the industry into one that “plans and manages ecosystems for ecological resilience.”
Simpson’s ultimate dream is to make the business case for a forestry industry that’s based on ecology. In practice that looks like mimicking natural disturbances and figuring out a way of making more things from less wood.
Restoring ecosystem resilience to Quesnel comes first, says Simpson. Everything else comes later. “I don’t think our agenda is radical, people are just hearing it for the first time.”
Part of that agenda includes thinning forests through selective logging instead of continuing with the old clear-cutting model. A thinner, patchwork forest is less prone to all-consuming megafires. So far, 188 hectares have been cleared by hand as part of Quesnel’s community wildfire protection plan. But that’s a tiny fraction of the 1.3 million hectares in the Quesnel Timber Supply Area.
Erin Robinson, Quesnel’s forestry innovation manager since 2019, said these changes are only possible because Simpson got the forestry industry on board.
“It’s really easy to oversimplify the relationship as logging equals bad. But since I’ve been in this field I realize that it’s not so cut and dry,” she said.
Quesnel is one of B.C.’s most forest-dependent communities. When an industry is this entrenched, you can’t just pull it out by the roots. They run too deep.
Simpson believes the timber around the community could create more investment and jobs. Instead of exporting two-by-fours and paper pulp, why not create work by turning trees into modular homes or innovative skyscrapers?
Deciduous trees are considered waste by the forestry industry. They just want fast-growing, straight-shooting pines. As a result, deciduous trees are often turned into pellets and then burned as biomass to generate energy. Simpson describes it as a “bottom-feeding industry.” He wants to make more from fewer trees.
Quesnel recently got approval for a community forest to co-manage with the Lhtako Dené First Nation. The area is currently being decided, but the annual harvest will be 73,000 cubic metres — a tiny fraction of the 2.6 million cubic metres allowed in the total Quesnel Timber Supply Area.
Simpson hopes finally to put these ideas for ecosystem resilience into practice on the land when it becomes operational in 2023. It’s the result of over two years of Simpson building a relationship through visiting the community and sharing stories with Lhtako Elders.
Simpson was the first mayor of Quesnel to formally recognize that the town is on Lhtako land. There are plans to give Indigenous names to local parks, set up a Lhtako cultural centre and establish a memorial to five Tsilhqot’in Chiefs who were wrongfully executed in Quesnel in 1864 during what was known as the Chilcotin War.
Although it may not sound like much, you’d struggle to find a forestry ecologist or town planner who doesn’t think what he’s doing is remarkable.
“He’s trying to be a catalyst,” says Paul Hessburg, a senior landscape ecologist at the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service and one of the many experts Simpson has called on to participate in the forestry think tank. “He’s willing to mess up the hair of the system. People think he’s a clanging gong, but he’s acting like a mayor should act, in my opinion.”
Simpson thinks that the only way to change anything is through legislation and regulation. “We can figure out the economics as long as we don’t blow up the ecology,” he says.
When Simpson first moved to Quesnel, there were five big forestry companies in operation. Now only three remain.
West Fraser started in Quesnel in the 1950s and grew into the biggest sawmill company in the world. Its headquarters remain in Quesnel, and it employs 1,300 people — nearly a third of the total workforce. Simpson knows many of West Fraser’s foresters by first name; he worked with some of them during his 10 years at Weldwood of Canada.
Drive three hours further north, though, and you’ll get to Mackenzie, a town of 3,700 people, where only two mills are still operating and more than 400 jobs have been lost due to closures. Simpson doesn’t want his town to fall to the same fate.
“He gets it,” Hessburg says of Simpson. “He cannot abide the notion that Quesnel collapses as a result of inaction, because he’s a fiery Scotsman. He’s saying ‘not on my watch.’”
Other single-industry resource towns are looking for another business to rekindle their spiralling economies: tourism, golf or scrabbling for any resource previous generations might have missed.
But in Quesnel, billowing steam clouds paint the sky. A sawmill that closed down during the pandemic has sprung back to life under new ownership this year. Rather than flip the board, Simpson is doubling down on the industry that built his town.
Quesnel has changed considerably since Simpson became mayor. You can now find sushi, great Mexican food, and a microbrewery in town. There’s a new electric car changing station. A better recycling facility is in the works. Simpson says he wants to “change the whole flavour of the town to something that’s interesting and funky.”
One of his most controversial moves was to repaint and relocate Quesnel’s landmark gold pan (the CBC's Justin McElroy named it the best welcome sign in the province) as part of his rebranding of the community. This is what finally got the townsfolk fuming about his mayorship — the deluge of negative comments about it are part of why he’s quit social media for good.
Simpson says he wants to turn Quesnel into a resilient, sustainable community, the kind of place that an urban environmentalist might want to live. Indeed, one of the new problems the town is facing is how to deal with the new residents who have moved there since the pandemic started pushing up house prices.
Simpson thought he would stay in Quesnel, his wife’s hometown, for two years. More than three decades years later, he intends to die here. He wants to retire from political life to go on long bike rides with his friends. But now, at an age when most people are retiring, he’s decided that he’ll run for mayor a third time this fall.
A lot is happening, but not much is done yet. “We have so much that is just on the cusp,” he says.
Important ideas can emerge from overlooked places. In the gulf between urbanites and people who live in smaller communities — a chasm that divides Canada politically — Simpson seems to have found a bridge. He says things urban environmentalists want to hear and yet represents one of B.C.’s most forest-dependent communities.
If Quesnel becomes a transformative place, it could become a model for resource towns everywhere.
Big systems change gradually, over decades. Small-town government bureaucracy moves like mud. In nearly eight years, Simpson has attempted to change Quesnel dramatically. But turning around a ship as big as B.C.’s industrial forestry sector is going to take a while.
“You can’t fix global forestry issues at the UN or the provincial level in Victoria. We have a scale right here that can work,” Simpson says. Quesnel’s Timber Supply Area is 1.28 million hectares, twice the area of Prince Edward Island.
“If we’re gonna reinvent the industry, it’ll be from this base.”