Saturday, November 23, 2013

Speak up for Public Forests

One hundred and one years ago, British Columbia pioneers decided to retain most of the forests of British Columbia for the people.

Public forests were dedicated to the proposition that government can act as the enduring trustee and ensure a wise and sustainable system of forest management.  Forest dependent communities would be free from periods of timber drought. Public timber would be available on an open market to encourage a competitive, diversified and healthy forest products industry. BC's forests would be free from waste and improvident use and the people would have freedom of access for recreation.

For seven decades, governments have seen our forests as an opportunity for economic development. Forest corporations were given timber harvesting rights and increasing forest management responsibilities in public forests. Forest dependent communities are facing timber droughts. A few forest corporations control most of the timber supply. Their favored position on public timber supply makes BC's wood products vulnerable to export taxes and tariffs. Errors of omission and commission by the Forest Service and forest corporations resulted in huge areas of old Lodge Pole Pine. It was vulnerable to mountain pine beetle attack. A recent epidemic resulted in a serious and major loss of timber supply.

The BC Government  hopes to solve forest problems by giving forest corporations greater long term control of designated areas of public forests. This will put our forests on a path toward privatization.

A better alternative is to rededicate our public forests by having large areas designated as local forest trusts will boards elected form the communities in the vicinity. A professional forest management staff would run the local trust as a business involved in timber, non timber and nature based economic activities. First Nations could have their own local trust or be represented on a local trust board. A BC Forest Trust Assembly governed by elected and professional delegates from local forest trusts would audit, support and act as a court of appeal.

(Reprinting encouraged; no permission required)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

British Columbia's great forest heist

President Abraham Lincoln said:
"It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time;
you can even fool some of the people all of the time;
but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time."

This famous quote about political calculation was probably the answer to the question: What can we get off with? It is probably the priority question of the criminal pondering the next "job".

In British Columbia, Government and forest corporations are pondering a future of long term area based leases of public forests to forest companies. Can they sell this idea to the public without raising suspicions that the long term intention is to move the public forests into the private interest?  Successful implementation of this next step will be the threshold toward enclosure of public forests into the private interest. Selling points are as follows:

  • The public can be told that the Public Forests will remain in Crown or public ownership
  • A few scraps of public forest will be retained to appease communities, First Nations and others
  • Forest management will rely on forest professionals (the fact that most will be employed by forest companies can be downplayed)
  • Area based forest management has advantages
The majority of BC's population lives in cities and their forests are not a priority for them. The environmental movement, with its tendency to be uni-focused is attendant on the issues of oil or bitumen pipelines and the potential for oil spills on the BC coast. Residents of forest dependent communities have generally supported government forest policy and the forest corporations in their communities. This may change as sustainability issues start to affect the economies of these communities. Interior BC communities will soon see the end of the saw-milling binge caused by the mountain pine beetle epidemic. They face a long term headache of reduced timber supply and may not be so well disposed to the status quo in future.

Can the British Columbia Government pull of the job of delivering most of BC's public forests into the private interest? Circumstances are in favor of a successful heist. Can you steal most of British Columbia without anyone noticing?  Probably not! Canadians are a quiet subdued and peaceful people with little history of major and especially violent "dust-ups". However, the treatment of BC's public forests have been the subject of one of the greatest outbreaks of civil disobedience in the history of Canada. BC's "War in the Woods" boiled over in the 1990's. The problem simmers on the back burner. Greater control of public forests by timber corporations will mean lesser control of the quality of the environment. This will probably erode the limited "social licence" enjoyed by forest corporations. Social Licence is a term coined by corporate public relations and it is also public relations speak for "What can we get off with?".

The British Columbia Government and forest corporations can pull off job of placing most of BC's public forests into long term private timber leases. However this will erode the social licence and create a host of future problems that are likely to cost the Government and forest corporations in the pocket. The present short term grab for control is likely to result in long term weakness rather than strength.

The alternative of Democratic area based forest trusts (click on sidebar) gives area based forest management that is accountable to the public. The trusts would be operated as businesses and timber sold on an open market. British Columbia's wood exports could be freed of present discriminatory export taxes. The timber allocation arrangements between the BC Government and forest companies tend to restrict free enterprise and make wood exports vulnerable to tariffs. The BC Government and BC forest corporations should discuss and assess other alternatives for area based management of public forests.

Monday, November 4, 2013

British Columbia's forest treasure chest has been looted. Do we want to give what's left to the looters?


With the recent announcement that two sawmills in the communities of Quesnel and Houston will close at the loss of more than 430 jobs, the time has come to face an unpleasant but necessary truth.

Our forests are so depleted as a result of the unprecedented mountain pine beetle outbreak and more than a decade-long logging frenzy in response to it, that we cannot possibly sustain the sawmilling industry that we currently have.

The provincial government has known for years that this would happen, yet did nothing of consequence to prepare for it. Worse, it now appears to be using the unfolding crisis to set the stage for the virtual privatization of British Columbia’s public forests - a move that it knows full well most members of the public oppose. 

To achieve that goal, Premier Christy Clark and her forests minister, Steve Thomson, are deliberately perverting the work, report and recommendations of a bipartisan committee of the provincial legislature on which both BC Liberal and NDP MLAs served.

The government is misconstruing the work of that committee to suggest that after touring the province and canvasing public opinion committee members recommended a course of action that would result in the door being thrown wide open to a handful of forest companies gaining de facto control over most of our public forestlands. Nothing of the kind happened.

Yet, in June of this year, Premier Christy Clark instructed her forests minister, Steve Thomson, in a formal letter to proceed with enabling legislation that would allow the granting of private tenures on Crown land known as Tree Farm Licences (TFLs).

The biggest winners in such a move would be just five companies two of which, Canfor and West Fraser, are behind the recent sawmill closure announcements.  Premier Clark’s instructions are a complete reversal of her government’s pre-election decision in March to pull such a plan from the order papers where it was within a hair’s breadth of becoming law.

Since then, the BC Liberals have promised that there would be full public consultation of draft legislation to enable the conversion of public forest tenures. The details on what that promised consultation will look like, however, are as yet anyone’s guess. Yet the promised consultation process could begin later this fall.

In the meantime, BC Liberal MLAs and forests ministry officials have allegedly been meeting secretly with municipal mayors and selected First Nations’ groups to convince them that the establishment of private forest tenure monopolies is in their best interests.

Meanwhile, 434 mill workers at Canfor and West Fraser sawmills are contemplating the pending demise of their jobs, and rumours abound that up to 10 more sawmills are vulnerable to closure at a further loss of thousands of jobs due to a growing lack of timber.

In the face of known, unprecedented uncertainty for numerous interior communities and First Nations dependent upon forestry for their livelihood, this is most decidedly not the time to be making fundamental changes to who controls what by way of our publicly owned forestlands. Instead, government needs to show long absent leadership.

That leadership begins with a solid commitment to reassess available timber supplies everywhere in the province, to plant trees, and to lower approved logging rates to levels in keeping with what trees remain available to log. Anything less, will result in even deeper pain for workers and communities in the months ahead.

In tandem with that, the government should also put a halt to the flagrant jockeying for position now in evidence by Canfor and West Fraser. Both companies not only simultaneously announced that they would be closing sawmills – in and of itself a highly unusual event – but both of them also concurrently announced that they intended to swap logging rights one with the other.

It looks very much like those swaps are intended to give Canfor uncontested, monopolistic control over the forests in the Houston area and to give West Fraser a virtual lock on forests in the Quesnel region. Further mill closures would almost certainly lead to more horse-trading, all in anticipation of the government then handing the companies the keys to the treasure chest by allowing them to convert their newly amalgamated holdings into TFLs.

Our forests are, indeed, a public treasure. But the treasure chest has been looted badly. And now is not the time to let what remains be signed away forever under lucrative TFL agreements that reward a handful of companies at the expense of the many.

Now is the time for government to do what it is supposed to do and lead the way to a healthier, more sustainable future for our forests and rural communities.

Anthony Britneff recently retired from a 40-year career with the B.C. Forest Service where he held senior professional positions in inventory, silviculture and forest health.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Proposed forest policy leaves First Nations bereft

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and Ben Parfitt, in Vancouver Sun

Ten years ago, the provincial government made the welcome decision to provide greater opportunities for First Nations to participate in and benefit from forestry operations in British Columbia.
The result was a flurry of new resource and revenue sharing agreements between the government and numerous First Nations that underscored the government’s commitment to enter a “new relationship” with the province’s First Peoples.
There was a fundamental flaw with the agreements, however, one that is now painfully obvious as today’s government contemplates controversial new rules that could allow a handful of companies to further entrench their monopoly control of our forest lands.
The flaw was that the agreements were of only short duration (five years) and failed to provide secure rights of access to defined areas of forestland for First Nations to manage as their own.
Complicating matters, the short-term, non-replaceable licences typically covered tracts of trees killed by mountain pine beetles. What the government clearly intended was to marshal First Nations in a concerted “salvage” logging effort in response to the beetle-kill — something everyone knew could not be sustained.
To underscore the vulnerable position that First Nations now find themselves in, let’s turn to the contentious proposal now emanating from the provincial government. The government wants to expand the current network of Tree Farm Licences (or TFLs). These licences carry by far the greatest financial value in the marketplace because they grant TFL holders exclusive rights to manage defined areas of forest over many, many years.
Of somewhat less financial value, but nonetheless still coveted, are replaceable forest licences. These licences are different from TFLs in that they confer rights to log defined numbers of trees over very large landmasses known as Timber Supply Areas (or TSAs). In TSAs, numerous forest licensees may operate. Over time, this has resulted in gentleman’s agreements of sorts where one forest licence holder sticks to a particular corner of a TSA while others operate elsewhere.
What the government now proposes is that the holders of replaceable forest licences be allowed to roll them over into TFLs. The government contends this will result in improved forest management (proponents claim that area-based licences provide greater security, which allows for increased investments in forest management, although there is scant proof of this). But the great danger is that it will deepen existing inequalities. The privileged will reap the windfalls while the underprivileged do without once again.
Here’s how. First Nations can log roughly 8.3 million cubic metres of trees per year. But the vast majority of that cut — 70 per cent — occurs under non-replaceable licences in forests that are running out of trees. Meaning, more than two-thirds of what First Nations have is virtually worthless. It can’t be converted because the timber, quite frankly, isn’t there.
Individual First Nations do hold a few TFLs, and many smaller forest tenures that might be called “mini TFLs” — small woodlots and community forest tenures — and they are grateful for them. But under the proposed government “rollover” policy, First Nations only have about 1.2 million cubic metres of licensed cut that could conceivably be rolled into TFLs.
By comparison, what do the five largest forest companies operating in B.C. stand to gain under the government’s proposed rollover legislation?
Between them, Canadian Forest Products, West Fraser Timber, International Forest Products, Tolko Industries and Western Forest Products control the bulk of what is logged each year in B.C. This includes 80 per cent of all logging done under TFLs. And because of the vast number of replaceable forest licences that those same companies hold (they have 19 times more replaceable forest licence volume than do First Nations) they could effectively triple their TFL holdings in the province, while First Nations, rural communities, small value-added mill owners and others do without.
Allowing a massive conversion of forestlands that further solidifies the hold that the shareholders of a privileged few companies have on Crown lands that are claimed by First Nations is a policy fraught with peril. It undercuts efforts to reach fair and just settlements with First Nations while unnecessarily saddling provincial taxpayers with potentially huge compensation payouts to those same companies down the road, in the event that lands turned over to them as TFLs, are subsequently needed to resolve outstanding aboriginal rights and title cases.
It’s time to roll the proposed rollover policy into the ditch and have a long overdue, wide-ranging discussion about how we chart a new, inclusive course in British Columbia, where the forests we share in common are truly shared. Anything less betrays the public trust and is a giant step back from an as yet unfulfilled new relationship.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip is president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.