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April 1997 - Past Issue

BC's Code A Competitive Boon For Other Provinces

By John Clarke
Copyright 1997. Contact publisher for permission to use.

The Americans, who've been fighting with us over lumber policy since the 1980s, have once again thrown a wrench into a Canadian initiative, this time with an international treaty on forest management. They say a convention to standardize management principles is "bad timing and bad politics." If this was an American initiative, the timing and politics would probably look better.

Strangely, environmentalists are on the American side on this. They don't want a treaty that isn't backed up by "effective local, regional and national action." Their preferred strategy is to work from the centre out. Get things shipshape and in order at home and then go international.

This suits Washington, which usually expects international conventions to conform to its ideas of laissez-faire free market economics. Certainly not managed forestry on the Canadian model. That would mean less market pricing for logs and cheap raw material for the mills, the very stuff of all the countervailing duty wars of the past few years.

Still, it must be admitted that Canada is not in good shape to fight this new round with the Americans. Our chances of developing effective national management standards at home are about the same as a snowball's in the underworld. It's only lately that Canadians have even acknowledged a need for national standards and their first steps toward them have been timid indeed.

Three years ago the Committee of Forest Ministers in Canada put out a set of principles for sustainable forest management. They were loosely based on the standards of the Canadian Pulp and Paper Association. They were worked and reworked until last fall when they were adopted by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA).

The industry is using the CSA to protect itself from boycotts organized by a network of international environmental lobbies. Exports are supposed to be marketed with sustainable forestry certificates approved by the CSA. Of course, to environmentalists the certificates aren't worth the paper they're written on. "Why should we support someting that has no independent standards or on-the-ground performance-based monitoring?" asks Vicky Husband, conservation chair of the Sierra Club. "We can't support these audit standards."

In truth neither can the Canadian industry generally. As long as Quebec and Ontario see an advantage in less rigorous and less costly forest management than in BC, they will never agree to enforcible national standards. Eastern producers believe they can afford to pay a penalty of $100 per 1,000 board feet under the softwood deal because their stumpage rates of $6 to $8 per cubic metre are about a fifth of those in BC, in part because of what it costs the province to administer its stringent Forest Practices Code. There's no way they'd ever agree to national standards made in BC. Ken Armson, former provincial forester in Ontario and now a private consultant, see's BC's code as simply draconian In other provinces legislation requires management plans to be developed, approved and periodically reviewed - in Ontario by an external panel, in Quebec by civil service staff. There are penalties of course for non-compliance. Bob Rae's NDP government levied the first ever $1 million fine in Ontario, where previously penalties of only a few thousand dollars were imposed. The link between Rae's government and the NDP in Victoria has been well and truly noted by critics of the BC Forest Practices Code. Armson, for one, points out that BC is "the only province instituting rules and measures which, in fact, don't allow for professional judgement by professional managers. They don't recognize the reality of the forest base. There are disincentives to innovation. They are not only burdensome to professional managers, they've missed the whole point of what we should be doing."

The Sierra Club would call that point of view biased. But it is an opinion shared by Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.

Quebec has raised its market share in the US by converting extensively from pulp to lumber and building state-of-the-art sawmills technologically equal and even superior to anything in BC. Would it support any set of national standards that would jeopardize that kind of growth? Not likely.

Yet the BC government had to do something to save its markets in Europe and in some parts of the US, and to mollify a strong green vote at home. And Alberta and Eastern Canada will eventually feel as much pressure from the ecology lobbies as BC does now. But until then they'll try to make as much hay as they can - and without the encumbrance of national standards.

Draconian or not, BC can't turn back on its Code. Public opinion wouldn't allow it. Overseas markets are increasingly demanding more environmentally friendly logging. BC has had to be the pathfinder on management standards, whether it likes it or not.

The balance of influence on national forestry policy may shift toward Eastern Canada over the next decade or so. Land-use policies are reducing log supplies in BC, which, amazingly, has had to start importing wood from Alaska and Alberta to maintain its markets. It will be a long time before reforestation will restore the forest base. Quebec in particular will move into the vacuum along with Alberta, and they will do no more than they already have to improve practices while the environmental pressure remains on BC.

Any attempt to create true national standards will always be hamstrung by the Canadian constitution. With control of the forests in the hands of the provinces, past experience says there will be at least four different views on what standards should be. And as long as Canada fails to get its own act in order, third-world countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Burma and Brazil won't waste time listening to pleas for an international treaty on logging.

The Americans say more time is needed even for regional and national action. They're probably right - a very long time.

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Last modified 06/08/97

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