Thursday, May 10, 2012

BC Forest Roads: Public to assume all risks

The BC Government is trying to sneak some legislation on forest roads into law. In March 2012, there was the first reading of an amendment to the Occupiers Liability Act to reduce the liability of forest companies and the Government with respect to forest roads. The Occupiers Liability Act requires the owner or operator of any premises to ensure that things are safe for anyone who enters. You get some protection if you enter a grocery store.  When the legislation comes into law, a member of the public, an owner of the public forest who goes on a forest or resource road will be in terms of the law: " a person who enters onto or otherwise uses a resource road is deemed to have willingly assumed all risks, " 

This has not been reported by the press because they assume that the public is not much interested in their public forests. It is the job of government to see to the interests of the public. The duty probably should be greater in the case of something that the public owns. 
You, or I as owners can fall into a hole in a forest road as far as the Government cares. 

The attitude of the BC Government shows lack of regard for the public owners and a willingness to provide for the interests of forest companies. It shields government from its duty of forest stewardship. A further step in the gradual stealth privatization of BC's public forests.

 What will the new legislation mean in practice for public users of forest and resource roads on public lands and forests?  On forest roads that are actively being used by forest companies, road safety standards will remain similar to present because forest companies will still be required to see to the safety of their employees and contractors.

What is this legislation really about? This legislation reduces the liability of the managers of BC's public forests, the BC Government and Forest companies, for poor forest stewardship. If you want to assess the quality of forest stewardship and do not know anything about trees or forests, you can get a good idea from the tracks or roads the human managers leave behind. Folk that do not know much about forests will often see clear cutting as the greatest potential environmental impact in the forest. Clear cutting can be accomplished with little impact if planned  and done correctly. However road location, construction and subsequent maintenance has much more potential for lasting environmental impact. Even a trail in a forest or park can become a problem.  Roads remove protective vegetation, disturb the soil or nutrient capital and alter the drainage. If roads are not well located, constructed or maintained they can cause landslides, erosion with downstream effects or fish and water supply. 

There is a structural problem that leads to poor stewardship of forest roads in BC. Our legal and institutional framework for the management of public forests is not built to provide forest stewardship, but rather to provide private rights to public timber. Responsibility of forest companies for forest stewardship covers harvesting and regeneration. This means that forest companies will be doing these activities in the forest on about 10 % to 20 % of the total area at any time. Roads that remain after the harvest and regeneration cycle get little or no maintenance. The location and planning of most forest roads is done prior to harvest, but harvest plans are usually for piecemeal parts of the forest for period of 5 years.  Forest roads are often located with little regard to long term access of the whole forest and this can result in excess roads, steep gradients that can increase erosion. 

When forest companies finish the harvest regeneration cycle, forest roads other than main arterial are often abandoned to lack of care. This means deterioration, erosion and reduced safety. Government bureaucrats assigned these roads to a euphemistic category of " Non Status Roads". Rather than solve the problem with a much needed new framework for stewardship of public forests that would bring continuous road stewardship, government has tried to mitigate the impact of abandoned forest roads. In the Forest practices Code era of the 1990's, road deactivation measures were introduced.  While these can help to reduce deterioration and erosion, they may not remain effective in a situation of complete abandonment. 

There tens of thousands kilometers of abandoned forest and resource roads in our public forests. They deteriorate and cause environmental impact. They become less safe for use as they deteriorate. This creates a liability problem for the Government and forest companies.  The solution is to legislate immunity.

This is like receiving that our forest managers that says:

Dear owner,

Our management of your forest and forest roads is poor. If you wish to visit your forests you do so at your own risk.

Yours truly,
Government and Forest Corporations.

It is time that the public responded as a sensible and reasonable owner and gave the managers the necessary reply:

You are fired!

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