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Time to jump-start the B.C. Forest Service—not bury it
By Jim Stirling
The British Columbia Forest Service is on a death watch.
The organization charged with managing the publicly-owned forests in B.C. is months shy of its 100th birthday but the prognosis is poor for it reaching that milestone in any recognizable form.
What happens next depends on Steve Thomson, B.C.’s minister responsible for forests and the rest of leader—and newly-minted premier—Christy Clark’s new Liberal government caucus.
For years, successive provincial governments have turned to the forest service for easy budget cuts. At one point, it was likely some judicious personnel trimming within the organization was justified. But that was in the past and the habit has now become an obsession.
In less than 10 years, the government has cut more than 25 per cent of the forest service’s work force and closed half of its district offices, the real presence and public representation at the landscape level.
The telling blow to this death by a thousand cuts approach was delivered by Gordon Campbell, just days before he announced his abdication as B.C.’s premier and leader of the provincial Liberal party last October. Campbell’s plan involves re-organization and alignment of five major ministries; forests; energy; environment; agriculture and aboriginal relations. Under this ill-conceived plan, the Ministry of Forests and Range is the Ministry of Forests, Mines and Lands and a new Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations was created, which Thomson now heads.
The apparent objective is to streamline and co-ordinate government processes. In itself, that sounds like a laudable objective, but this route to achieving it less so. The ministry re-organization is supposed to be an extension of “the one project, one process” formula being negotiated between the provincial and federal governments. It’s designed to simplify the repetitive review and approval government processes endured by resource companies proposing large scale projects on Crown land. About 94 per cent of B.C. is composed of publicly owned land.
It would seem prudent to see first the anticipated results of the governments’ bi-lateral discussions on resource use application procedures before dismantling the existing provincial government structures.
It’s difficult to comprehend how this single super-ministry of natural resource operations can simplify and de-obfuscate anything. The proposed ministry’s objectives and responsibilities would include Crown land authorizations, including those pertaining to forests and range, roads, bridges and engineering and independent power projects. And there are huge implications there for the forest sector as the bioenergy industry awaits clear guidelines about power purchases. Everything connected with mines and mineral development would also be part of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
Then there’s aboriginal consultation where it’s linked to natural resources (which is just about everywhere); water use; aquaculture authorizations; any proposed commercial developments on Crown land and all fish, wildlife and habitat management functions down to and including where you go to buy your annual fishing licence.
Resource management compliance, forest investment operations and wildfire management also fall under the aegis of the new streamlined ministry.
Just imagine standing in line at this ministry office.
This re-organization was, by all accounts, very much Campbell’s baby.
Characteristically, he formulated the details of the idea in concert with senior bureaucrats, but not with consultation of other elected members of the ministries involved—let alone the public.
None of those vying to become Campbell’s replacement, including Clark, announced anything substantive about their old bosses’ plan. They were conspicuously mute on the whole issue.
The preoccupation with selecting a new leader in the Liberal camp was compounded by the imploding of the New Democratic Party. The official opposition party is similarly changing the guard. The result of this farce is the people’s business was on indefinite hold.
But there’s an upside. The opportunity is there to at the very least apply the brakes to the re-organization plans for B.C.’s resource and land use ministries. And most specifically to those governing the forest landscape and the industries and communities dependent upon it.
A reassessment of the role and responsibilities of the Ministry of Forests and Range (or whatever the bureaucrats end up calling it) within that process surely deserves to be the result of a thoughtful and collaborative approach—rather than a dictatorial one.
A key part of the process should be the recognition and enshrinement that forest lands cannot be efficiently managed and funded by the term of a political office and funded by expediency. Being a responsible, long-term steward of the public interest should mean developing and delivering consistent, dedicated programs.
The focus for those programs might include tree planting; new stand management; assembling, interpreting making available accurate inventory data; insect suppression and research into the implications of a changing and drier forest landscape.
The venerable forest service has adapted before to profound changes during its century of existence. It responded and developed as B.C. grew and the forest service helped open up the province’s central and northern regions. The people who worked with and for the forest service through the years reads like a bibliography of prominent and influential British Columbians. Charging today’s forest service to deliver the public’s forest stewardship functions would jump start a new beginning for the institution’s
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