British Columbia introduces Forest Act amendment that would allow woodlot owners to remove private land from their plots, critics fear legislation will free up land for development

VANCOUVER, B.C. , October 11, 2011 () – The provincial government has introduced legislation to allow woodlot owners the right to remove their lands from forest management requirements and sell them while retaining their tenure on Crown lands, similar to a controversial move four years ago that allowed large forest companies the same right on Vancouver Island.

The Liberals introduced the change Tuesday as an amendment to the Forest Act, stating in a news release that woodlot owners will be able to remove private land from their woodlots, at the discretion of the minister, to provide them "flexibility in managing their assets in changing economic times and to plan for retirement."

Critics of the woodlot licence amendment say it is a one-sided change of a public-private contract that provides benefits to private land owners. The only difference between the amendment and the 2007 removal of 28,000 hectares of private forest land from tree farm licences on Vancouver Island controlled by Western Forest Products, is the scale, said Ken Wu of the Ancient Forest Alliance. The Victoria-based conservation group mounted public opposition to the 2007 removal of Western's southern Vancouver Island forestlands adjacent to the Juan De Fuca Marine Trail.

The government's handling of that removal drew an admonishment from the auditor-general and ignited widespread community protest that has yet to die down.

"This sounds like a mini-version of the tree farm licence removal controversy," Wu said in an interview. As was the case with the larger tree farm licences, private forest lands cannot be developed as long as they are in a woodlot. There is no development restriction once the lands are taken out.

There are 875 woodlot licences in B.C. operating on 505,000 hectares of forest land but only 91,000 hectares, or 18 per cent of the land, is private. The rest is Crown land, often obtained in return for keeping the private portion of the land within the woodlot licence.

"In many cases people were granted woodlot licences on Crown land by agreeing to include their private forest lands within the woodlot licence," said Wu. "It's similar to the situation with many coastal tree farm licences but on a smaller scale. The removal of those private lands from the woodlot licence essentially frees them up for development while allowing them to keep the Crown woodlot licence, and that's not in the public interest."

According to the website of the Federation of British Columbia Woodlot Associations, the woodlot licences are "a form of area-based tenure which is unique to British Columbia. In effect, they are partnerships between the licence holder and the Province of British Columbia to manage public and private forest lands."

Brian McNaughton, executive director of the association, said in an interview that the estate planning is the prime reason woodlot owners want the right to take their private lands out of the woodlot.

"We have an aging demographic," he said.

He said not all woodlot owners, himself included, will want to take private lands out. Some might want to take a portion out, and others might want to take all out but continue to manage the public portion.

He said the association expects there will be some controversy and wants to be transparent in what it is proposing. Before any land could be taken out of the woodlot licence, it would be advertised locally and the public be invited to comment. An accommod \ation could then be reached, he said, which might include the woodlot owner taking steps to ensure that public values are maintained. The decision to allow forest companies to withdraw their private lands motivated woodlot owners to seek the same right, b ut he said there is a difference in scale.

"We are talking about woodlots, which are small parcels, we are not talking about large tracks of timber, like perhaps was done with the corporations," he said.

Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Steve Thomson defended the decision at a media scrum at the legislature Wednesday, saying woodlot owners would have to meet certain conditions before they could withdraw private land from their woodlot.

"This will be limited. This is dealing with an aging demographic in the woodlot industry. This means that they can continue woodlot operations without having to surrender the whole woodlot in terms of their planning," he said.

NDP forestry critic Norm McDonald said he understands that woodlot owners require some flexibility but allowing them to remove their private lands while continuing to harvest timber on the public lands portion of their licence is not the answer.

Woodlot owners, he said, originally received the benefit of tenure on public lands by putting up their private lands to manage as forestlands. As long as their private lands are in woodlots, the owners receive favourable taxation and other benefits, McDon ald said.

"We have a high degree of discomfort with this," he said in an interview.

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