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Outside factors forcing forest industry outside its comfort zone

By Jim Stirling

Outside factors are now forcing the forest industry to move outside its comfort zone. More frequently, the industry is encountering situations where entrenched attitudes are being questioned and radical ideas are not arbitrarily discarded. And that’s a good thing.                 

Consider some evidence. There was Jim Snetsinger, the British Columbia government’s chief forester and consummate bureaucrat, telling a resource forum audience that privatization of forest lands might be an idea worth considering. Granted, Snetsinger was not advocating such a move, even if it was in his bailiwick to do so. He was responding, somewhat uncomfortably, to the urging of Pat Bell, agriculture and lands minister and promoter of the forum, to be controversial.                                   

But Snetsinger pointed out that other countries with successful forest industries—Finland, Australia and New Zealand for example—have small private landowners supporting the sector. He said if the time comes to think and talk about property rights and tenure in BC’s forests, he would hope a way could be found to maintain sustained investment in the forest industry that would also respect all resource values. And any system would need to maintain BC’s high standards of forest management and the needs of communities among other considerations, he added.                                   

Snetsinger’s suggestions amount to a solid foundation for discussion from a forest professional who is much more at home with the painstaking process of determining AACs across the province that are reflective of and sensitive to the changing demands and expectations placed on the forest land base.                                   

“A healing is happening and it’s needed,” Shawn Atleo told the same resource forum audience. And it has to be based on respect, recognition and reconciliation. Atleo is BC Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and a member of the Ahousat First Nation on northern Vancouver Island. The articulate Atleo adopted a conciliatory but firm tone to his assertion that aboriginal title and rights exist—and it’s about time to sit down and work out the implications.                 

The province’s 203 First Nations groups comprise only about five per cent of the BC population but the political clout and influence is disproportionate. But Atleo wasn’t wielding a big stick. “We have to give expression to title and rights. We have to turn the page from surviving to thriving in our territories,” he urged. And that means recognizing First Nations as governments and having real conversations that respect each other’s place in the world, he explained. The disconnection characterizing the historic status quo is no longer an option, he added. It’s a role of opposition parties to question government policy and suggest alternatives that might stimulate change. BC’s New Democrats have tried to jump the gun on the Liberal majority government on forestry issues. They’ve developed a raft of proposals including the provision of a permanent forestry commission to chart a new direction for the industry. The Liberals, meanwhile, have established a roundtable of forestry designed to review the troubled industry and devise recuperative strategies.                                   

Opposition leader Carole James chose the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association annual meeting to urge tenure reforms to the allocation of Crown timber in BC. “British Columbia’s long standing tenure regime can be a disincentive to capital investment, innovation and value-added use of our forest resources,” charged James. “There are dozens of stories across the province with the same theme: an innovative entrepreneur with a profitable idea can’t take advantage of the market because they can’t get the timber they need.”                                   

James said looking to market-based solutions is the answer. “If we are to be successful in restoring our industry, in developing new industries and getting more value out of our forests, we must ensure one thing: access to timber.”                                   

Anything to do with tenure reform is treated with deep suspicion by the US lumber lobby and James recognizes that. “Every time we even think about taking some action to support and plan for our own industry, in our own interests, the US threatens arbitration. We’ve ceded control and veto over our forest policy to the US.” James was suggesting it’s past time for a little hardball and putting Canadian interests first. She recommends the federal and provincial governments take the present version of the softwood lumber agreement to hearings to figure out how best to do that. Further, she said, the hearings should not restrict their options, including withdrawing from the agreement.                                   

Questioning the fundamentals of forest industry structure is not just a BC phenomenon. A discussion paper introduced by the Quebec government earlier this year proposes removal of guaranteed quotas for large companies. They would have the right to buy up to 75 per cent of their cuts at market prices. The remaining 25 per cent of their quotas and any uncut quota volume would be offered for bid in an open market each year.                                   

The larger companies would, however, be relieved of forest management obligations under the proposal. They would be performed instead by regional, certified businesses. Smaller, independent companies operating in Quebec would retain quotas under the proposal.