Sunday, April 27, 2014

British Columbia forest stewardship needs a change of concept


Clarity in forest ownership and tenure is a cornerstone of the legal and institutional framework for sustainable forest management. Sustainable forest management is a long term affair and those involved in forest management need security of ownership or tenure to make the necessary commitments. It is an indicator (7.3a) in the Montreal Process for forest conservation and sustainable forest management.

The British Columbia Government is currently looking at increasing area based timber right tenures in it's public forests. Long term area based leases or tenures are seen as a means to give forest corporations a greater sense of ownership and therefore the encouragement to invest in silviculture and other tending of the forest. It is seen as a way to encourage the growing of timber and sustain the timber supply. There is validity in the perspective. Unfortunately it is a small picture perspective about growing trees.

In British Columbia, we need to be able to see the forest and not just the trees. In the average forest landscape, only about half of the forest is suitable for timber production. Timber producing forest landscapes contain an area of land in virgin natural condition that is double the size of the present area of designated Parks or protected areas. This land needs stewardship and in many forest landscapes it could be a source of significant nature based economic activity.

Forest management is not just about growing trees. It is not just about clarity of forest tenure for forest corporations. Most of the forests of British Columbia are Crown Forests in the right of the Province of British Columbia. This makes the Government of BC the trustee of the Crown or public forests. The public needs clarity of ownership and the right to clean water and a healthy environment. The Montreal Process expects the the traditional and legal rights of aboriginal people to be included. Courts have recognized aboriginal title in BC and there has been a long running land claims process that has provided First Nation's people with little more than frustration. Employment for the legal profession seems to be the main benefit to date.

The problems of entitlements in BC's public forests are rather intractable. The BC Government seems to think that the solution is to provide forest corporations stronger tenure in the form of area based leases. In return for increased tenure, forest corporations will be expected to give up a little forest that will be used for various peace offering small tenures to First Nation's, communities and others. Some forest will be retained by the Government for its BC Timber Sales program that attempts to give a semblance of a timber market. It will not be sufficient to remove BC's present vulnerability to discriminatory export duties. The small tenure holders may not be satisfied with their peace offerings. The thin social license for corporate timber rights holders in public forests may puncture and BC could see significant civil disobedience and "wars in the woods".

BC's forest sector and forest dependent communities are too important to the economy to be exposed to a policy direction that is uncertain and that may undermine social and economic stability. There are also significant sustainability issues in coastal and interior forests that require some major adjustments. We need to look for another way forward that gives all parties the security and confidence to proceed under some legal and institutional arrangements that will truly support sustainable forest management. This will mean an improving future for the forest industry, First Nation's and forest dependent communities.

The BC Government is presently using area based forest management and area based tenures interchangeably. Area based management in our contiguous public forests should be about placing a large area of forest landscape under the care of a single responsible steward. Area based tenure is about fragmenting the forests between forest corporations and other holders entitled to peace offerings. We are fragmenting our public forests between different interests. It is an entitlement grab being orchestrated by the Trustee of our public forests.
It is an undoing of our public forests.

The present BC Government follows a long line of government administrations stretching back over 100 years that does understand its proper role in BC's primary institution in its legal and institutional framework for forest management. That institution is not the tenure system of the Forest Act but the public forest itself. The public forests are not there so that various parties can have rights and entitlements. Public forests are there as an institution so that the BC Government can act as the enduring trustee and see that they are supplied with sustainable stewardship. This will sustain healthy forests, a competitive forest industry and forest dependent communities. Unfortunately, a century of BC Government administrations have viewed the public forests a a giant timber pot that can be handed out to timber rights holders. Public Forests are not about rights and entitlements. Public Forests are an institution intended to ensure stewardship. Public forests are about responsibilities rather than rights. We have forest sustainability problems today because we operated our public forests on a system of rights rather than responsibilities. The BC Government, has excelled at being an enduring poor trustee.

BC does not need a tenure system in its public forest. We need a stewardship system that sustains the health of the forest environment. It needs to be a system of responsibilities rather than rights. The first item on the agenda is some improved institutional arrangements for the Trustee of BC's Public Forests. We need something better than a Minister of Forests operating without trust documents from the short term political and economic perspectives of a politician as the conductor of an orchestra of forest grabbers with some rights to the timber in our forests.  The next blog will look at improved legal and institutional arrangements for the Trusteeship of our public forests.



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