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The federal government is bashed for its decisions —and indecision—on forestry issues

By Jim Stirling

Fed-bashing is a popular year-round sport in British Columbia. It came as no surprise, therefore, that Canada’s senior level of government was roundly chastised recently on two major issues affecting the forest industry. On the first, the federal Liberals were criticized for a decision made and on the second, for action not taken. But in both cases, room is left for maneuvering. And perhaps—for once—the industry may yet get some of what it deserves.

Howls of protest greeted the federal government’s refusal to approve aid packages to help workers and forestry-dependent communities that are the victims of the Canada-US softwood lumber dispute. Federal cabinet ministers declined to fund a $400-million loan guarantee program to protect medium and small-sized forest companies while the fight winds its weary way through due process. Reasons cited included a price tag too high for a government keen to maintain the perception of deficit control.

There is also the fear a loan guarantee program would add fuel to US claims of subsidy. And that it could trigger further US retaliation, like imposing countervailing duties in Atlantic Canada. The fears are valid given the protectionist imperative of the US. Other ingredients in the aid package include federal assistance with job training and work sharing programs for those forest industry people forced from their jobs by mill closures and a fund that would help industry pay its legal bills incurred during passage through the World Trade Organization and North American Free Trade Agreement dispute bureaucracies.

The federal government also dismissed in its original form a proposal from woodworkers’ unions for a $300-million pension program package to help ease older workers into early retirement. But the door has not been slammed shut on all or parts of the loan guarantee package or the unions’ initiatives. There are indications that scaled-down versions will still be considered, along with changes in how programs might best be delivered. Packages of $100 million (down from the $400 million proposed) and $200 million (down from the $300 million proposed) have been suggested.

The mountain pine beetle epidemic is the second major issue affecting BC’s forest industry where federal government assistance has been sought. Federal government officials have listened dutifully to industry overtures and chosen not to respond. At least, up to the time of writing this column. And therein lies a potential problem. The federal cabinet has indicated it will review the impacts of the softwood lumber wars and the appeal for beetle money at the same time.

The danger is the two issues will become blurred, with neither judged on its merits or receiving its fair share. The risk is a token financial offering from the federal government to the whiners in the west, if anything meaningful at all. It’s the divide and conquer strategy which —along with ignoring calls for funding deemed supportable in central Canada—is a major reason why fed-bashing is a popular year-round sport in BC. Job losses and community dislocation due to the US-driven softwood lumber dispute is an entirely different issue from the pine beetle epidemic.

They are apples and oranges. Black and white. The federal government has so far demonstrated little interest in helping out with the worst forest health issue ever experienced in Canada. The lack of initial action by the NDP provincial governments, federal inertia and favourable weather conditions have created an unholy mess on an unprecedented scale in BC.

The latest estimate is that 100 million cubic metres of timber are under attack by the beetles, across an area four times the size of Vancouver Island. In 2000, the epidemic was twice the size of Vancouver Island. The beetle epidemic has far-reaching implications for BC’s forest industry, the marketing of wood products and the provincial economy. The regional forest industry created a mountain pine beetle emergency task force, with emphasis on the word emergency. Since 1999, the group has been trying to impress upon Ottawa the seriousness of the situation.

The task force petitioned the federal government repeatedly to commit around $50 million a year for 10 years to help return lands logged of beetle-killed and damaged wood back into productive forests. The BC Liberals have taken up the cause and recently asked the federal government for an initial $120 million. The money would be spent in a variety of ways including a start on forest rehabilitation work, beetle wood marketing strategies, First Nations involvement and the vague “research”.

Federal stalling on the pine beetle issue has been frustrating enough but the rate at which the beetle wood has been harvested has been an additional concern. Many observers—including loggers willing and able to get at it—feel there have been too many delays in moving the bug wood. There are reasons for that. It takes planning to develop the most effective harvesting strategies with BC’s forest policies under review.

Lumber markets have been in turmoil. Many sawmills in the affected areas have been living with a steady diet of green attack and worse wood. Harvesting efforts are far outstripped by the dramatic rate of the infestation’s spread. The provincially appointed beetle boss, charged with co-ordinating beetle wood harvesting strategies, has announced an expanded timber harvest for this winter’s logging season, especially in the Vanderhoof area. A million cubic metres a year will go to existing licensees set up to move quickly. Other harvesting rights are to be auctioned off in various sizes of forest licences. A small step in a massive challenge.

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