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beetle toll prompts timber tenure tussle
By Jim Stirling
If you live in B.C., the implications of Bill 8 may be on their way to a forest near you.
The debate surrounding the bill enabling the creation of more area based forest licences in British Columbia is now gathering momentum. Buoyed by a surprise majority victory in last spring’s provincial election and with four more years at the political helm in front of them, the Liberal government is pushing full steam ahead with its agenda.
For Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and his staff, one of their priorities is to find ways to offset predicted mid term timber supply shortages resulting from the mountain pine beetle epidemic in the B.C. Interior. The beetles have changed the physical face of interior forest lands and the structure and size of the forest industry dependent upon them. The beetles’ toll on the province’s pine forests is causing a downturn in timber availability and suitability for conversion to commodity wood products.
Just exactly when the timber supply crunch kicks in and how severe it will be remains unclear and will likely vary considerably area to area.
The Liberal government views Bill 8 as the passage to convert more of today’s prevalent volume-based forest tenures into area specific ones. The government believes more Tree Farm Licence-type licences in the B.C. forest industry will deliver benefits for both parties.
When the bill was introduced in February 2013, Minister Thomson said he believed more area based licences would help restore to health beetle ravaged forests. “Area based licences or area based tenures can act as an incentive for enhanced silviculture, since the licence holder who is making the investment will gain the benefit,” Thomson told the legislature. “It can be a very important tool in the mitigation of mid term timber supply challenges.”
The plan also has appeal for a cash-strapped government publicly determined to balance the provincial budget. Depending on how it’s structured, the licence flip proposal has the potential to offload some rehabilitative and silvicultural responsibilities to the private sector.
The opposition NDP was quick to fulfill its role and criticize the government’s proposal. Not so much on a philosophic opposition to more TFL-type licences as for the lack of details surrounding the specifics of how the government planned to proceed, explained Norm Macdonald, the then NDP forests critic. But the government received a much more strident broadside from environmental groups. Some of them claimed the government’s proposal represented nothing less than a public land giveaway to large corporate entities. “This appears to be essentially a giveaway to big companies,” charged Jessica Clogg, representing West Coast Environmental Law. “We have seen a lot of consolidation in the industry and this is setting us up for the last grab by those that are left standing to lock down their rights. I see a clash of the titans over the B.C. land base.”
With 20 year-old memories of the Clayoquot Sound confrontation between loggers and environmentalists and an imminent provincial election date, the Liberals realized they should drop the tiger whose tail they were twirling. In March 2013, Thomson announced a postponement of the legislation pending, he said, more public consultation about the government’s forest licence proposal. “What is required is to ensure that there is a clear and consistent public understanding about area based management, the benefits it will bring and how it will work,” pointed out Thomson.
But now it’s September, and the government is on more secure public footing—but environmental groups and other sources of potential opposition haven’t gone away. Much will depend upon the details enshrined through Bill 8 and how the government proposes to proceed with more area based tenures and what, precisely, the new versions might entail. And, of course, how the government explains its plans to the skeptics is crucial.
The forest industry was not overly vocal when the government first announced its proposals: an obvious sign it was aware of them and at least supported the plan in principle. “This is simply a different form of tenure that grants harvesting rights over a certain volume of timber,” pointed out Doug Routledge, vice-president of the Council of Forest Industries when the Bill 8 proposal first surfaced in the legislature. “It’s not a giveaway of timber. The timber has already been allocated in tenure. It’s not a giveaway of land because the land remains vested in the Crown and the public interest,” explained Routledge.
A point of accountability and transparency is likely to be raised in the debates, coming from those groups opposed to more area based tenures in the B.C. Interior. The B.C. Forest Service has been gutted for years by the provincial government, sharply reducing the numbers of boots in the forest to help monitor what’s happening at bush level. Audits of harvesting sites by the Forest Practices Board inspectors helps fill only some of the gap.
Predicting how it will all play out is only marginally safer than predicting when (if) the U.S. housing market returns to its robust best. But if the government makes the terms and obligations of licence rollovers favourable to industry, then it’s likely some companies will decide it fits well into their corporate philosophy and structure. But it’s also likely other companies will politely decline from commitment while maintaining the option of changing their minds.
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