Friday, May 7, 2010

Change and the BC Forest Service

In response to criticisms of more downsizing, the Minister of Forests, Pat Bell, praised the Forest Service for its ability to evolve and change. The Forest Service will celebrate its centennial in 2012.

The creation of the BC Forest Service, one century ago, was a very progressive idea. Timber companies were exploiting forests and leaving a legacy of ghost towns all over North America at that time. Most of BC's magnificent forests were retained in Crown or Public ownership. The Forest Service was intended to provide independent professional forest management. Sustainable communities and a healthy forest industry was the intended outcome.

In 1909, a Royal Commission on forestry recommended the Forest Service as the independent management institution for BC's forests. A wise system of forest management and conservation was the primary responsibility of Government and the Forest Service. The Commission noted that the weakness in the progressive arrangement was future government administrations that did not make wise forest stewardship the first priority.

Meeting forest industry needs has been the direction of the Forest Service's political masters for many decades. The Forest Service controlled the volume of timber that could be harvested to sustainable levels, but forest companies could select the timber they wished to harvest. Forest companies tended to take the highest value timber on the most accessible sites. The coastal forest industry now faces the harvest of lower value timber from less accessible sites. Meeting forest industry needs in the short term, created problems for the future. That future is now.

The Forest Service met forest industry needs in the interior of BC by fighting forest fires. This saved lots of lodgepole pine from fire. Unfortunately, lodgepole pine was not at the top of forest industry's list for harvest. Consequently large areas of lodgepole pine grew old and susceptible to mountain pine beetle attack. The present 13 million hectare outbreak of mountain pine beetle is much larger than a natural outbreak. All losses of timber to mountain pine beetle cannot be avoided completely. However, a system of forest management that enhances mountain pine beetle habitat and creates a super natural outbreak with timber and economic losses of $100 Billion is hardly wise.

Allocation of most of BC's public timber resources to a few forest companies did aid in the rapid establishment of forest industry in BC. However, the allocation of most of the timber to lumber and pulp producers restricted supplies of timber to other value adding wood industries. The administered pricing system aided the forest companies in times of poor markets. However the arrangement can be perceived as a subsidy and BC has been impacted by discriminatory export taxes. We export logs because our commodity producing forest sector cannot generate sufficient value from their manufacture.

Our legal and institutional arrangements for our Public forests have not yielded the intended outcome. Forest dependent communities and the forest industry are suffering. This situation cannot be blamed entirely on the present serious economic downturn. Problems in the forest will remain. Solving the problems requires major change to our arrangements for sustainable management of our forests.

What are the main problems with the present arrangements? Developing a wise system of forest management has not been the first priority of BC Governments for most of the past century. Rather they have viewed the forest as a resource bank that can be converted to cash. A tenure system of private harvesting rights was developed and forest management responsibilities were delegated to forest companies. Enterprise, competition and wood industry diversity was restricted by allocating most of the harvest to a few commodity producing forest corporations. BC Governments have failed to act as a responsible trustee of our forests. Further they have failed to provide good government by seeing to the interests of forest corporations before those of the public.

What are the solutions? Unfortunately the only solutions that are being offered point down the same path that has caused problems in the first place. Long term tenure in Commercial Timber Reserves will give private interests greater control over our forests.

The biggest problem with solutions that increase private interest in our forests is not one of forestry alone. Even if you live in one of the larger cities in BC and do not feel closely connected to the forests or forest management, it is something that you should think about. Aboriginal people have appreciated BC's wide open spaces for thousands of years. Maybe you or your forefathers came to BC for this reason. Wide open spaces and the freedom to go and visit them is part of BC and who we are. Make no mistake about the fact that forest policy in BC in progressing in the same manner as historic enclosures of land from the common interest to the private interest. Increasing private interest in our forests will reduce our ability to control the quality of our environment in future. This is not a great conspiracy, but rather a continuation of our inability to appreciate the long term consequences of poor forest policy.

Strengthened private rights in public forests and ongoing entanglement between forest corporations and the BC Government will further compromise the Forest Service. The public is entitled to sustainable management of their forests. Sustainable forest management is not just about sustainable supplies of timber. A forest landscape can add to local economies through timber and non timber forest products, and nature based recreation enterprises. Laws and institutions should encourage free enterprise and a diversified value adding wood manufacturing industry. Public timber should be sold on an open market. To achieve the necessary rebuilding of a diversified forest sector, independent management of public forests is necessary.

New institutions are required to provide independent sustainable management of our public forests in the 21st Century. The institutions need to be accountable to the public while providing some checks and balances on political intervention. A devolved system of Local Forest Trusts and a Forest Trust Assembly is a potential solution.

The Local Forest Trust would comprise a relatively large geographic area of one or more forest landscapes, of sufficient size to support economic forest operations and a forestry staff. It would have an elected board. The Local Forest Trust would operate under trust documents developed from the Montreal Process definition of sustainable forest management. The local forest managers would be accountable to the local public and would manage the forest to generate timber, non timber and nature based economic activity. Other than woodlot stewardship agreements, the Local Forest Trust will not be able to delegate major forest management responsibilities to forest companies. Timber will be sold in log form on the open market to provide a competitive environment.

The Forest Trust Assembly would be governed by an equal number of elected delegates and professional delegates from Local Forest Trusts. The Forest Trust Assembly would audit Local Forest Trusts, and provide collective services such as forest fire fighting and extension services. The Forest trust Assembly would act as a court of appeal for the public, the staff of Local Forest Trusts and wood utilization companies.

Local Forest Trusts and the Forest Trust Assembly are two linked institutions that would provide a new forest service that is accountable to the public and communities while at the same time providing a competitive base for a new revitalized and diversified forest sector in BC.

These new institutions can also provide a means of settling First Nations land claims. First Nations could have self governing Local Forest Trusts with the supports of the Forest Trust Assembly to help develop needed sustainable economic development.

The public and forest dependent communities will have to ask for these new institutions. Take an interest and speak up for independent and accountable management local forest management.

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