British Columbia Premier comments on leaked cabinet submission that considers reduced conservation of old-growth forest, says 'tough decisions' are needed

Wendy Lisney

Wendy Lisney

Apr 20, 2012 – The Tyee

VANCOUVER, British Columbia , April 20, 2012 () – A leaked cabinet submission that considers reduced conservation of old growth forest and wildlife habitat is indicative of the discussion the British Columbia government is having about finding timber for a new Babine Forest Products sawmill, said Premier Christy Clark.

Independent MLA Bob Simpson, who represents Cariboo North, said whatever decisions the government makes, it will be asked to apply them to other forest districts as well.

"It does bear some resemblance to it," Clark said, when asked how much the submission reflects cabinet's discussion. "The issues that it raises are issues that we do need to be debating... There's nothing in there that shouldn't be publicly discussed and isn't being publicly discussed."

The April 7, 2012 "request for decision" document outlines options for finding enough timber supply to justify Hampton Affiliates Ltd. rebuilding the mill in Burns Lake that burned in January, killing two people and injuring many more.

Copies were linked to various people, including Simpson and the NDP, who asked about it during question period April 18.

'Actions will be controversial': Clark

The options include allowing harvest at a rate that is 40 per cent higher than the level considered to be sustainable, a choice that would give short-term supply at the expense of harvests from 2032 to 2072. It also suggests reducing the rules that conserve old growth timber, protect wildlife habitat and maintain the visual character of landscapes.

"Actions to take more risk with regard to old growth timber conservation or wildlife habitat will be controversial with the public," it said. "ENGOs, and perhaps some First Nations opposition to changes will likely be strongest in urban regions, but will not be restricted there. The tourism industry opposes more timber harvest in visually sensitive areas, and the rural public is polarised on the issue."

It may be necessary to suspend the chief forester's ability to set the annual allowable cut in the Lakes Timber Supply Area and have those decisions made by the cabinet instead, it said.

"When you look through it, what you realize, is almost all of the answers could be controversial, they'll be difficult," said Clark. "The thing is we won't get to answers unless we make some tough decisions."

The government hasn't made decisions about things like increased logging of old growth and needs to make sure it engages the public on those issues, she said.

Huge implications, says Simpson

Responding to a question from NDP leader Adrian Dix, Clark said the leaked document didn't go to cabinet, but it does reflect the discussion happening around Burns Lake and other areas.

The NDP's forests critic, Norm Macdonald, pointed out the Burns Lake fire was on top of problems that already existed in the industry. "The government has basically mismanaged the forest health crisis that we have," he said. "Why did it take the loss of the mill for the Liberals to figure out that problem, and will government commit to finally addressing the forest health crisis, not only in this region but across British Columbia?"

Jobs, Tourism and Innovation Minister Pat Bell responded, saying the government has been working since 2001 on responses to the mountain pine beetle epidemic. "None of this is new news," he said. "It's important now -- it's been expedited as a result of that very tragic fire -- but this all started a long time ago in the 1990s."

The minister named on the cabinet submission and who is responsible for forests, lands and natural resources, Steve Thomson, was away from the legislature.

Simpson said that the timber supply problem is widespread in the province, as seen in records released yesterday that said there's enough timber to keep mills going in Quesnel for 1.5 years and in Prince George for five.

"This is an issue they need to address," said Simpson. "They don't have a game plan in place to address it and now they're scrambling."

Simpson warned in January that maintaining timber supply in areas affected by the mountain pine beetle could depend on opening land use plans and "relaxing" protections for old growth and wildlife, The Tyee reported.

The government needs to start the public discussion on the topic immediately, Simpson said. "All of it has implications for precedent," he said. "The minute you set the precedent that cabinet will make that decision, now people just come and lobby you to do the same thing in Prince George, Quesnel and wherever."

It may mean opening up the land base to other interests, including mining, as well, he said. "The implications of this and the precedents it establishes are huge."

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