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Campbell's Approach in BC Worth Watching Nationally

By John Clarke

British Columbia's new premier, Liberal Gordon Campbell (Liberal in name, Conservative in fact), may find out sooner than he imagines that he has drawn the short straw in trying to "re-establish a globally-competitive forest industry." How could a mere politician restore an industry crippled by nearly a decade of New Democrat trauma? And to do it in 18 months, which the industry itself thinks is too long? The NDP brought in many radical changes in the past 10 years. It didn't help that most of what it did had to be done, under pressure from a more environmentally-literate public and international boycotts that were eroding markets overseas. The industry doesn't quarrel with the need for the tough Forest Practices Code, only that it's far too bureaucratic and too heavily regulated by hands-on government control freaks. Campbell will ease up on regulation and expect the industry to police itself a bit more. 

But for the rest he has raised the bar high. He wants to turn forestry in BC into a sunrise industry. That's an interesting turn of phrase, tending, as it does, to confirm a growing suspicion that forestry, along with all the other resources in the Old Economy, is in decline. To reverse that trend-or even merely hold it at bay-his most important initiative will be to set aside enough land as working forest for the exclusive use of the forest industry. For years the corporations claim they've had to compete too much with other interests. The NDP was clearly more interested in promoting tourism, hunting-guiding and parkland development. NDP policy was to offer intensified forest practices in return for balanced use of the wilderness. 

In other words, forestry had to compete with those other interests. The old government loved to boast that it was the only jurisdiction in North America to have met the United Nations objective of 12 per cent of the land mass dedicated to parks. To the forest corporations, that meant mounting pressure on the land available to them. The designation of working forest will undoubtedly pit Campbell against the well-organized lobbies that want to reduce old growth logging and any other kind of logging of which they disapprove. 

Yet he has to reverse the long shadows of a setting sun. The industry will hold him to his promise, made often enough during the campaign to have given it the writ of Holy Grail. What the industry wants is the same protection for working forest that is now applied to parkland. In a January speech to the BC Truck Loggers Association, Campbell said: "Count on this. Under a Liberal government there will be a working forest land base where forest industry activities are the first priority. The extent of the base will be decided at an open cabinet meeting. It is as critical a decision as any new park and we will make both decisions in full public view." If he carries through with this last promise, it will have the merit of denying any kind of political spin. The decisions are bound to be controversial in the atmosphere that is BC today. 

They will be exclusionary and in contrast to the NDP approach, which may reflect a broader political reality. Public support for forestry is not an unalloyed benefit. True or false, the industry's reputation for scalping watersheds and mountain slopes has been cleverly molded by the lobbyists to suit their own agendas and shape public opinion. Rural communities, even those dependent on forestry, are more and more a collection of disparate interests that may not want the forests closed to them. Aboriginal interests are not the least of these. Working forest designations may look to those other interests like a declaration of private property rights in a public resource. Aboriginal land claims could be a thorn in the rose of Campbell's agenda. 

He's insisting on holding a referendum on the issue, to the dismay of many business people who frankly believe it's a mistake. It's a mistake Campbell may be unable to avoid. The BC Reform Party, a remnant of the old Social Credit, pushed hard for a referendum to expose public opposition to aboriginal self-government, among other things. When Campbell adopted it, Reform disbanded, leaving the field clear to the Campbell Liberals, for which he was very grateful. The fear in business circles is that the referendum will be so divisive that it will be harder to get on with the forestry agenda. How far and how fast Campbell can go may be qualified by the nature of his election victory. He has an overwhelming majority -the Liberals now have 77 seats to the NDP's two. But in a poll taken before the May election, 60 per cent said they were voting against the NDP, rather than for the Liberals. 

Only 20 per cent said they supported the Liberal platform. These factors aren't likely to stop him from carrying out his plans. But they do suggest he may still have to convince the public that his choices are right. How he picks his way through the woods may be a light for those other provinces facing the huge changes in an industry under pressure to justify itself, while fighting off American intent on curtailing Canadian softwood sales into their market. Old Economy or not, forestry contributes over $4 billion to the three levels of government, or about half a million dollars every hour of every day. Since a good half of that comes from BC, what happens there is taking place on a national stage.

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