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Clark Failed to Bridge the Distrust of Industry

By Jim Stirling

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For the people running a BC forest industry that is in the throes of change, it must have been sweet coincidence to see a review of government policy get under way just as Glen Clark was resigning as premier. To them, the political epitaph could not have been more appropriate.

Not that Clark was the sole architect of the policy’s failures. What’s been going wrong has been around under some of his predecessors, not just New Democrats but Social Crediters as well. But Clark took the NDP policy and ran with it, only to make things worse. What has emerged is an object lesson for the rest of the country on how not to conduct forest policy—if the rest of the country hasn’t learned the lesson already.  The four basic initiatives of the policy are, of course, well known. What’s not so well known is how they got to be under-achievers.  They were all undertaken with good—but badly flawed—intentions.  The centrepiece is the Forest Practices Code, prescribing not just the objectives but the methods for saving the resource and getting it into line with modern environmental thinking.

To get more out of an exhaustible resource without depleting it entirely, you need better reforestation and more intensive silviculture. That’s something that bountiful BC didn’t think much about until relatively recently.

So you need something like Forest Renewal BC (FRBC) to make sure the millions collected from the industry in “super stumpage” are properly spent. It’s also needed to spread the “new” work created by the Code among the professional tree planters and union members losing their jobs to harvesting cutbacks.

For a long time, FRBC didn’t quite know how to begin spending and delayed plans while a cash-strapped government toyed with—and then dropped—the idea of siphoning some of the money into its own treasury.  With no discernible progress in sight, the government—then in Clark’s hands—felt pressure to do something more. Hence, a Jobs and Timber Accord, which never really was an accord since none of the major forest companies signed on.  It was star-crossed from the beginning.  Like most central planning, it suffered from a blind faith in economic analysis from some government office somewhere.

The accord has never produced the jobs.  In fact, rather than industry employment increasing, unemployment has increased.  In the midst of all this, a social democratic government can’t sit idly by while its plans go awry. It has to do something more.  So Clark thought up yet another initiative—a Forest Action Plan. The Plan is intended as an antidote to the Accord. It’s meant to show how the industry should handle all those other initiatives, save the companies from sinking deeper into the red and offer them some return benefits for job creation.

Essentially it’s a scrambled attempt to rescue forest policy from the bitter brew of recession and the American hawks trying to make it ever more difficult for the industry to do business in their market.

It all has a strange echo from another time.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the industry ran into a serious down cycle. It asked for government help and was rewarded with something called “sympathetic administration” of the logging rules.  From 1982 to 1991 strict regulation was soft-pedaled. The professionals in the Ministry of Forests, however, saw their role as regulators basically neutered. They saw sympathetic administration as an abuse of their mandate.

Whether that was the case depended on which side of the fence you sat. In any event, a new NDP government came on the scene in 1991 and promptly brought in the Forest Practices Code. The Code is a regulator’s dream and it was quickly recognized as a handy tool for reversing sympathetic administration.  Anyone who thought Victoria needed a tighter grip on the industry now had the motive and the means to apply it.  The rules were there for the job. The professionals in the ministry had helped write them.

The Code has led to mountains of paper work and millions of dollars in added costs to the industry. Getting harvesting approvals takes forever. The system is reduced to the speed of molasses.

Yet when Forests Minister David Zirnhelt was asked last year to temper the Code’s tougher regulations, he replied: “Should we go back to sympathetic administration? No.” But that was then, this is now.  It has to be said that in his three years as premier Clark tried to go the other way, to make the process less bureaucratic.  A new initiative has begun to cut the paper work and shorten licencing and permit approval time. But the professionals on the industry’s side believe it will be a hard slog. They wonder if there can ever be an accommodation with this or any NDP government, so deep is the distrust now between its bureaucracy and the industry.

Even as Clark tried to repair some of the damage, he perpetuated what was looking more and more like ad hoc forest policy.   The Jobs and Timber Accord has tried to make the Code work and fulfill promises of no unemployment, all in defiance of economic realities. And the Action Plan is a prescription to make the Accord work.  But the Clark experience has run up some red alerts about how far a government should go in imposing wholesale change without serious and friendly consultation with the industry. It poses a large question on how far forest policy can be bent to conform to a social agenda beyond its capacity to finance.

To the extent that Clark failed to bridge the distrust, his name will be as large as anyone else’s on the NDP legacy.

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This page last modified on Tuesday, February 17, 2004