B.C. Mill Towns Bet Big on Tourism

Fishing in Smithers | BCBusiness
Smithers locals say the area boasts the world’s best steelhead fishing.

How Smithers and Burns Lake are looking to replace mill jobs with tourism

Leaders in B.C.’s small northern mill towns have high hopes that tourism will offset job losses in the forestry sector—and if you stand in the parking lot of almost any mill in the province and look around, the reasons why so many are excited about that potential are obvious. Mills were built where wilderness meets transportation infrastructure—road, rail and water. The arteries that brought forest products out to global markets can bring visitors in, and these areas are surrounded by the mountains, valleys, lakes and rivers that will attract them. The hope is that the natural bounty that built forestry can also give rise to a new, service-driven type of economy.

Forestry in British Columbia has suffered greatly in the past decade. When the U.S. recession of 2008-09 caused new home construction to flatline, B.C.’s mills ground to a halt. Between 2006 and 2009 lumber production in the province declined by 44.4 per cent. The sector has slowly been recovering, but the heady days of pre-recession forestry are not likely to return, so many B.C. mill towns are looking to tourism to pick up the slack.

Smithers and Burns Lake—in the heart of forestry country along the Yellowhead Highway—are two towns trying to make the service-sector shift. And while both share similar geography, demography, size and history, their prospects for attracting visitor dollars are very different.


Smithers (pop. 5,404) lies on the banks of the Bulkley River, where Pacific Inland Resources operates a large sawmill. In 2013, the town celebrated its centennial, and as part of the celebration, local leaders remediated an old service station and made a timber- frame stage and band shell in the town square. “There are a lot of creative people in Smithers—performing artists especially,” says Mayor Taylor Bachrach. “Our hope is to create this vibrant gathering space where we can showcase some of that local talent.”

The quaint, walkable downtown core of Smithers didn’t get that way by accident. In the late 1970s, as most small resource-oriented towns were hollowing out their old downtown cores in favour of strip malls along the highway, Smithers was transforming its Main Street with tourist appeal in mind. A small group of prescient business people and local elected officials enacted a town bylaw enforcing a new alpine theme. All downtown buildings must have “peaked roofs, facade articulation, deep overhangs, wood timber framing, window trims, decorative woodwork” and other esthetic features. Tourists entering the town are greeted by Alpine Al, a fibreglass statue of a man blowing an alpine horn.

The current generation has continued the legacy, but focused its efforts on outdoor recreation, developing North America’s first dedicated non-motorized backcountry skiing area. For those who prefer a lift, Hudson Bay Mountain is only 24 kilometres from town. The prominent peak looming over the valley is home to the region’s largest resort. Famous for its powder and dramatic landscape, it was the location for the 2011 Liam Neeson thriller The Grey. Hudson Bay boasts four lifts, but people in the region seem to still prefer to go up under their own power. In March, the resort hosted the first annual Extreme Everest Challenge, a 24-hour competition to cover the equivalent vertical of Mount Everest by climbing up the runs with touring skins on their skis and skiing down. Mayor Bachrach also credits part of the town’s tourism success to what he claims is the “world’s best steelhead fishing.”

When competing for tourist dollars, Smithers has a few advantages other nearby towns lack. Since extending the runway in 2009, the local airport has had daily flights from Vancouver. It’s also a provincial government centre, so average incomes are higher than the provincial average; this helps support the small main street cafés, bars and restaurants through lean shoulder seasons, when neither the mountain nor the river is attracting dollars. Hotel tax revenues to the local government have more than doubled in the past decade, with two new properties being added in that time.


Burns Lake

Burns Lake (pop. 2,029) has not fared as well as Smithers in its tourism efforts, with 5,209 tourists stopping at its visitor’s centre in 2013 to its neighbour’s 6,434. Burns Lake is oriented along the highway, which makes it a convenient place to pull over for gas and a snack, but less inviting as a place to hang out for a while and explore. Mayor Luke Strimbold is working to improve the situation by expanding the pullout at the visitor’s centre. If visitors can be convinced to get out of their cars and RVs, staff would have the opportunity to push pamphlets into their hands showing off the local attractions. Taking a page out of Smithers’s book, Burns Lake has also started emphasizing outdoor recreation. Last year, the local mountain bike trail system—which averages around 80 riders a day—was the first in Canada to receive the International Mountain Bike Association Bronze Ride Centre certificate.

The need to diversify the local economy is more urgent in Burns Lake than in other nearby towns. On January 20, 2012, two workers were killed and 19 others badly hurt when an explosion tore through the Babine Forest Products sawmill. By far the area’s largest employer, the mill will be rebuilt, but only two-thirds of the 220 workers who were employed there before the explosion will be re-hired. Modernization reduces the labour demand, forcing local leaders to look elsewhere for jobs. But Burns Lake, gritty working town, lacks a charming Main Street and other esthetic advantages that make Smithers attractive to tourists. Strimbold has a big challenge ahead of him.

The combination of natural gifts and transportation infrastructure that made these towns ideal for forestry should also make them attractive destinations for tourists. But the two industries share some less desirable economic traits as well, including labour force volatility and sensitivity to currency fluctuations. If tourism can succeed in replacing mill jobs it will be in towns like Smithers that have made long-term investments in becoming a destination. Even with that success, however, a café server is unlikely to fill the economic void left by a well-paid, unionized mill worker.