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.

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