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Changes To the Code

By john Clarke
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Publicly, the forest company CEOs are saying most of the right things about changes to the three-old Forest Practices Code (FPC) in BC. But it's far from euphoria in the boardrooms. In fact, there's really some dismay that the rewritten Code will make things only marginally better for the industry, just as it's girding itself for the millions of dollars it will have to spend to run a counter-boycott campaign against Greenpeace in Europe and elsewhere.

At best the "new" Code is but a first step. It's supposed to shave $5 a cubic metre off the production cost of wood, which would translate into a cost savings of between $30 and $60 per 1,000 board feet, depending on the species and location.

But it has already cost the industry an extra $750 million a year, over $300 million of it in red tape-and what is generally agreed to be over-regulation - for a total of $1 billion since the New Democrats brought in its original charter.

Industry losses amounted to a staggering $350 million last year alone, and with prices at $300 (US) per 1,000 board feet there's no clear indication when the bleeding will stop.

There's not much doubt that the industry needed cleaning up. Environmentalists had an easy time convincing the public that large clearcuts, stream encroachment and other ecological damage were not supportable. The question was and is how and how far to go in changing the psychology of the industry.

For the record, the Council of Forest Industries of BC (COFI) gladly approved the latest amendments. Ken Higginbotham, vice-president and chief forester at Canfor Corporation, one of BC's major forest companies, speaking for the companies, said: "We are pleased the government has listened to our concerns and made these changes. The changes should mean our professional foresters and others spend less time in the office processing paperwork and more time in the woods making decisions in the best interests of environmental protection and the province's economic health.

"Along with promised changes in stumpage it will help get our people back to work."

In a nutshell, the new approach is to rely more on process than on prescription. The old Code was so complete and so precise that foresters were generally denied the use of their own professional judgement to achieve the government's ends. To many professional foresters across the country this was the most appalling thing about the Code. There was little trust in their experience.

The amendments will cut the number of plans to be submitted to the Forest Service from six to three, reduce unnecessary reviews, limit the chances of logging plans being reversed and return more responsibility and accountability to the professional foresters.

BC Forests Minister David Zirnhelt uses a cozy little mathematical equation to show how far the changes go. The paperwork, he says, has gone from 70' thick to 35' - cut in half, in other words.

Not so, say the people who do the paperwork. The original six plans covered an absurd average of 650,000 pages annually. There will be fewer pages now. But eliminating three plans doesn't mean paperwork gets cut in half. Much of the information is simply being rolled into the other plans, which will be bigger than before.

Preparation time will be saved and approval time will be shaved.

"When you do that," says one of the backroom boys, "You can build Standing Timber Inventory (STI) and (move) wood ahead more quickly. That will result in operational savings. The potential saving will be in the STI more than in the paperwork. It will save money in the field by having more flexibility."

The government has also strengthened what's called the consistency rule. Lower-level planning will have to be consistent with higher-level planning. A change at the lower level can have a domino effect. With fewer plans, the number of amendments that have to be written will be reduced. As a consequence the chances of delays in getting approval will also be reduced.

Some of the new direction is by way of policy, not amended regulations. Cutting unnecessary reviews will mean more reliance on results - what the forests look like after the plans have been put into operation. When you focus on results rather than process you automatically put more trust in the professionals.

But all this is a policy shift only. It's surprising to see how much regulation there still is when forestry is compared to other professions.

"Can you think of another profession where a second opinion is needed in every case?" says one leading forester too sensitive to his situation to want his name used. "You would be hard pressed to find that kind of situation, yet that's exactly what you get in the case of these plans. At this stage that second opinion has not been removed."

He rejects the claims of Greenpeace and other environmental groups that the industry is still the fox guarding the hen house. Two general documents are still required - a forest development plan for broader, longer-term landscaping over five years and a silviculture prescription dealing in detail with operations, cutblock by cutblock, for instance.

"We still require government approval of these plans and not one tree can be harvested without government approval," he says. "The Code is still 2,000 pages long. We still have guidebooks that aren't getting shorter or fewer. There is not one single regulation that has gone away."

To make the Code a truly viable document, the industry believes radical change is still needed in the way it goes about setting forest practices.

Cutblock size is a continuing irritation to the industry. The Code currently sets limits of 40 to 60 ha, yet the average in practice is 25 ha - 18 on the Coast and 33 in the Interior. The government has said it wants to raise that average to 35 ha but it's going to do so again by policy, not regulation. There's no sign of that policy change yet, even though the government admits smaller blocks "significantly increase work load, road requirements, the cost of logging and environmental risk."

Green-up restrictions are another area of industry unease. Green-up is the height a new forest has to attain before harvesting is allowed on an adjacent stand. Currently it's three metres. This standard is established as a surrogate to preserve other values such as wildlife protection, visual quality and hydrological prudence.

The result is that logging must be done over a much larger landscape and more roads are needed than would be the case if harvesting an adjacent stand was permitted earlier. Professional foresters insist green-up restrictions can be lowered while still protecting ecological values.

To most in the industry the amended Code is only a step in an ongoing process. As one executive says, "the yuppie generation didn't invent the Code; forest practices have evolved over a long time."

Practices have to change in response to increasing knowledge, and perhaps move toward one-plan approval by government. And there is a wildlife initiative still to come. The government has indicated as much.

But the question for government as well as for industry is whether this new Code is a good regulatory instrument for the kinds of change inevitable in an ongoing process.

Unfortunately any amendments that look like they are helping the industry out of the hole the original Code put it in give the environmental lobbies an opportunity to accuse the government of retreating. And those lobbies will continue to be a very important part of the question.

That's what comes of not doing the job better in the first place.

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