Friday, April 18, 2014

The Trustee of BC's Public Forests

Residents of British Columbia are beneficiaries of our public forests. The BC Government is supposed to act as the enduring trustee and ensure that public forests are managed under a wise system of sustainable forest management. The intended outcomes were healthy forests, environmental and recreational benefits, a strong diverse forest industry and sustainable communities. Public forests were also intended to ensure that timber supplies would not be controlled by timber interests. We have some serious forest sustainability issues and most of the intended outcomes of public forests have not been achieved.

The present trustee, Forest Minister Thomson in an article in the Spring 2014 edition of Truck Logger BC states that "Area based management is not about privatization of public forests". This ambiguous assertion could be true if you define area based forest management as the stewardship of a large area of forest by a steward with full responsibility for the sustainable management of all the forest and its infrastructure. Area based forest management is likely to be better than permitting different parties to harvest and regenerate piecemeal pieces of the same forest area. Area based management should be seen as an avenue toward better stewardship of British Columbia's public forests.

Public Forest Trustee, Thomson and his Ministry of Forests are presently engaged on a public consultation on area based tenures.  Privatization in BC's public forests is not some new or future threat, but something that has been underway for at least seventy years. BC's forest tenure system is about private timber harvesting rights in public forests. A few forest corporations hold the rights to harvest a substantial portion of all public timber. The area based tenure initiative will enable these corporations to convert long term timber volume tenures to area based tenures.This means greater control over areas of forest by forest corporations. It is a form of creeping enclosure of public forests into the private interest.

The forest tenure system gives rights to harvest public timber. The timber is given an administered price by government. These administered prices make BC wood exports vulnerable to export tariffs or taxes and we are being penalized. In an attempt to create a semblance of a market for public timber, the government sells some public timber under the BC Timber Sales program. It is not effective in creating a true open market for public timber and has not removed our vulnerability to discriminatory export taxes. The tenure system is poor economic policy. The BC Timber Sales program and a variety of other small and short term tenures fragments the management of public forests and is an impediment to area based management. Since BC has large contiguous areas of forest landscape, any proposals to move to area based forest management should aim to place complete geographic areas of forest under the management of a single forest steward.

In the Truck Logger BC magazine, Forests Minister Thomson says: "Area based management is providing one licence holder with exclusive timber harvesting rights, but not rights to other resources.  Whether a forest licensee has an area based licence or a volume based licence, they must follow the same laws and regulations with regard to environmental stewardship and public rights and access." The Forest Minister uses area based management and area based tenure inter-changeably and admits that that it will give stronger, exclusive private timber rights. The Forest Minister's test for privatization is the actual sale of public forest land to corporate timber interests. Enclosure of common or public land throughout history has often involved gradual or creeping privatization.

Is Forest Minister Thomson only able to consider area based forest tenures as the institutional framework for area based forest management, because the public forests are already encumbered by private interests?

It may suit the Forest Minister's political purposes to use the test of actual sale of public forest land as proof of privatization. However, Forest Minister Thomson is also the trustee of BC's Crown or public forests. If the residents of BC or the beneficiaries of the public forest trust are being denied full potential benefits owing to the interests and entitlements of private or corporate timber rights holders, then privatization is already present.

Unfortunately there are no trust documents for BC Public Forests. It will surprise most Canadians to learn that Canada is now one of the minority of backward countries that does not have a right to a healthy environment enshrined in its constitution. A public trust doctrine has not emerged within the Canadian legal system so a BC Forest Minister has considerable freedom of action with respect to public forests. However, a 1909 Royal Commission  advised BC to retain its forest in public ownership and emphasized that the success of our public forests was dependent on successive BC Government administrations developing a wise system of forest management. Canada is a signatory to the Montreal Process an international agreement on conservation and sustainable forest management in temperate and boreal forests. The Montreal Process indicators do provide a scientific and objective set of indicators to enable the wisdom of our stewardship arrangements for public forests to be assessed: Montreal Process Technical Indicators

The BC Forest Minister argues that area based forest tenures with only give rights to timber and not other resources. Timber comes from trees and trees affect the entire forest environment, its biodiversity, its soil, water, wildlife, fisheries, economic and recreational values. Go to the Montreal Process indicators referenced above if you wish to explore more scientific detail on the obvious fact that "trees make the forest".  A wide range of public goods such as clean water come from the forest. Since the public are the owners of the public forest they should be entitled to these benefits.
Is a private timber manager, even when constrained by rules and regulations, the most suitable steward of a public forest? A tenure system within public forests is not a good legal and institutional framework to support sustainable forest management. (See Forests and Wall Street )

Forest management in BC has been the focus of protests, wars in the woods, and some of the largest incidents of civil disobedience in the history of Canada. Control of public forests by timber harvesting rights holders has been at the root of most of these incidents. While no one can predict the future, the strengthening of timber harvesting rights to greater control of areas of public forests is likely to reduce social licence. The tenure system of timber harvesting rights has not even been a success at sustaining timber supply. Rather than seeking greater control over public forests, forest corporations should be wise to consider the benefits of an independent forest steward for public forests. They could leave forest management to another party and buy their timber supplies on an open market. We should not blame forest corporations for the existing privatization within public forests. It is a long line of poor government administrations that gave us the tenure system, and the inability of the present trustee to envision any alternative.

Economic benefits were another reason for retaining BC Forests in public ownership. By the early 1900's timber interests had wasted considerable forest resources in North America and there was fear that private ownership of forests would lead to waste.The tenure system has led to waste.
Timber barons could control all the timber supplies and restrict the development of a diverse wood products manufacturing industry that adds value and employment. Public forests with independent professional stewardship and open access to public timber supplies was seen as a better route to ensure the sustainability and prosperity of forest dependent communities. Forest dependent communities around BC now face sustainability and prosperity challenges. The original vision for public forests has been corrupted. The original vision remains pertinent today and it seems that our pioneers of a century ago had greater wisdom than abounds today.

Economic, social and environmental benefits of forests can now be assessed under Criterion 6 of the Montreal Process. The first indicator is the value and volume of wood products. Control of a substantial portion of public timber by forest corporations engaged in commodity wood products production has restricted the availability of wood supplies to other manufacturers. A lack of diversity in wood products manufacture reduces the total potential value of wood products. The value of non-timber forest products has never been fully realized because timber management views these as a nuisance rather than an economic opportunity.  Nature based economic activities such as eco-tourism is regarded as a bit of a joke by timber managers. The average forest landscape in BC has an area of forest and other land in natural condition that equals the area of forest that can be harvested in the same landscape. Area based forest management should not be restricted to timber and a timber economy but it should seek to develop and sustain a variety of forest based economic activity derived from the full natural capital of the forest landscape. Large efficient saw mill and pulp mill operations will remain a cornerstone of the timber economy and there should be a place for the existing corporations in any re-engineered legal and institutional framework for sustainable forest management.

The Minister of Forests tries to reassure the public that all will be well with area based tenures because there will be laws, regulations and rules. The history of forest management tells us that rules do not make the best foundation for good forest management. They often introduce inflexibility and tend to reduce innovation and progress. Rules are often brought into to fix poor forest management. The French tried a strong set of rules in the 1600's and it slowed improvement. In BC we are convinced that we need a rules approach to curb the timber instincts of timber rights holders. The result is a cumbersome and wasteful bureaucracy both in government and forest industry. It is possible that one of the main motivations for government promotion of area based tenures with the notion of professional reliance is to further reduce and downsize the Ministry of Forests. The system is frustrating for forest corporations because plans produced by their foresters with practical field experience and knowledge may have to be approved by a government administrative forester with limited field experience and knowledge. While the system of approval is supposed to place checks on timber interests it is also confounded by the fact that government also shares in the proceeds of harvesting. The tenure system set up by government gives entitlements to timber. The forests are seen as a resource pool that you can extract your entitlements of timber and cash. The forest is not operated as a business and both the government and forest corporations have been reluctant to put back enough cash into the tending of the forest and the maintenance of its infrastructure.

The Minister of Forests, the Trustee of BC's public forests needs to go deeper than a little surface rhetoric provide the necessary revisions to our legal and institutional framework for sustainable forest management. The first problem to resolve is the trusteeship of BC's public forests. Devolving trusteeship to elected board members of local forest trusts is something to consider. Democratic area based forest trusts









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