British Columbia government's new action plan for forests blasted by opposition as 'business as usual'

VANCOUVER, British Columbia , October 10, 2012 () – The British Columbia government says it is acting on a series of recommendations to help the province's forest industry in the wake of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Critics say it's a weak response to the issue that shows the government hasn't learned from the collapse of other natural resource industries.

"The action plan represents the next phase in our decade-long battle against the mountain pine beetle," said Steve Thomson, the minister of forests, lands and natural resource operations, talking to reporters on a conference call.

The 16-page plan is a response to an August report from the legislature's special committee on timber supply that held hearings throughout the province last spring and into the early summer.

It sets out nine actions it describes as "sustained" and 11 that it characterizes as "new." As the plan puts it, "The key elements of the action plan focus on reforestation, forest inventory, fuel management and intensive and innovative silviculture."

The plan includes a promise of legislation to move to area-based licenses from volume-based, and to create licenses to allow companies to harvest wood that is not sawlog quality but that could be burned for energy.

Thomson said there is $100 million in the 2013-2014 budget for reforestation, and the ministry will seek further funding through the budget process to pay for the rest of the plan.

He defended the decision in the past to drop doing forest inventory and planning for reforestation during the worst of the beetle epidemic. "The rapidly changing situation in our forests dictated that we hold off on updating our inventory and reforestation plans until it stabilized, and now we can proceed," he said.

Beetle like a hurricane

John Rustad, who is the parliamentary secretary for forestry and who chaired the timber supply committee, compared it to coping with other natural disasters. "If you're planning to do some work on your house, and there's a hurricane approaching, you're not going to undertake the work on your house until you've seen what happened with the hurricane," he said. "The same thing is what happened with the mountain pine beetle epidemic."

However, the New Democratic Party's forestry critic, Norm Macdonald, said it was "ridiculous" to stop doing inventory during the worst of the crisis.

The auditor general, the forest practices board and the Association of B.C. Forest Professionals have all criticized the government's failure to keep forest inventory up to date, he said.

"They were making cut determinations based on data that's 30 years old," he said. "They're setting cuts. Forestry doesn't stop."

The government has taken a hands-off approach to the industry and is responsible for the consequences, said Macdonald. "They're trying to rationalize what they've done, which is to step away from the responsibility to manage the forests properly."

In general, the plan offers little to help the forest industry, he said. "It is a predictably weak response from this government that's shown no interest in looking after the land over the last 10 years," he said. "It's basically business as usual ... There's no new money. As far as I can see, it's just not there."

Jobs today, consequences later

If there's going to be a shift to area-based tenures, which would set the number of hectares to be harvested each year and give the industry flexibility on how much volume it harvests each year, it needs to be done very carefully and with an eye on the public benefit, said Macdonald.

"It's a complicated thing to do properly," he said. While the switch might help, he said, "There really isn't the proof you necessarily get benefits."

The government is trying to keep the status quo in the forest industry, even though it's obvious the province's forests cannot keep the industry going at the rate it has in the past, said Bob Simpson, the MLA for Cariboo North and a former forest company executive.

"You've got an eleventh hour panicked response to something the government's had a long time to prepare for," he said. "We've seen this movie play out since humanity settled down in one location and wiped out the natural resources around them. It always ends badly."

Simpson compares the state of B.C.'s forest industry to what happened with the Atlantic cod fishery two decades ago. Despite warnings from non-government scientists, the stocks were allowed to be exploited at an unsustainable rate to feed processing plants in places that identified as fishing communities all along the coast, he said.

"None of those communities can describe themselves as fishing communities anymore," he said. "That's what we're doing here."

The government should allow cut level to come down and let the industry "rationalize" so there isn't so much overcapacity for milling, he said. "What the government's doing is preventing any rationalization whatsoever."

Fully depleting the resource might delay going over the cliff, but it will make that cliff even bigger when the time comes, he said. "We're always extinguishing the resources for today's jobs and today's economy, and eventually you lose those two as well."

The government would be wiser to put its efforts into climate change adaptation and mitigation, he said, as well as helping communities that have been dependent on forestry to transition into other ways of surviving.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria.

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