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Silvicultural Sector Seeks A Voice

Summary: Employing 18,000 seasonal workers, BC's silviculture contractors have little lobbying clout and almost no representation in the planning process.

By Robert Forrest
Copyright 1996. Contact publisher for permission to use.

For more than 20 years silvicultural contractors have been the invisible sector of the forest industry. If they were seen at all , they were regarded as transient and, in British Columbia, as “outsiders.” Only a few months ago following his government’s throne speech, the BC premier was quoted in a Vancouver daily as saying that out-of-province workers were coming into BC to take away forestry jobs.

Members of the Western Silviculture Contractors Association (WSCA) see remarks like this as part of their problem in dealing with government. The nature of their work and the individualism of many con-tractors and workers have given the industry a low profile. Many politicians and bureaucrats are seen as failing to recognize the con-tributions of the silviculture sector to the forest industry as a whole.

Peter Gommerud, president of the WSCA, says, “Organizationally, we have to represent ourselves more effectively. We must present a profile of who we are and where we come from. Some companies have been contracting for 25 years and some are new to the business. In BC, they are located throughout the province. They are family businesses with long-term employees.”

The association’s invisibility in BC has left the WSCA members without the voice they feel they need to be on key committees and boards that can affect their industry. “We don’t have representation on the board of directors of Forest Renewal BC (FRBC), the board that governs our industry,” says John Betts, Forest Renewal Coordinator for WSCA.

“We’re poorly represented at the community committee level, too.” They hold only three of 78 committee memberships. WSCA is also concerned that, while the industry may be worth billions of dollars in western Canada, it has had no lobbying effectiveness with governments at any level. Many municipal leaders have suggested silviculture contractors make no significant contributions to their communities. This is due partially to the short five-year business life expectancy of the average contractor in the industry, according to WSCA literature. Indeed, the longer-lived contractors point out that most of their concerns are the same as they were 15 years ago.

The importance of silviculture to the forest industry is often ignored ormisunderstood. While Canada has 0.3 per cent of the world’s population, it has about 10 per cent of global forests which account for approximately 17 per cent of its export income. Although silvicultural efforts have increased significantly in the last decade, WSCA points out that we must do better still as we are losing forest base land at a rate of 250,000 hectares annually.

WSCA claims that intensive silviculture can double the fibre volume of a commercial stand in half the time that a natural forest would take. That amounts to a four-fold increase in wood fibre from a given area. There are approximately 60 to 80 members of WSCA operating in BC, according to Chuck Emery, vice-president of the Association. “We do about 80 per cent of the work,” he says.

“There are an additional 500 or so contractors that between them do about 20 per cent of the work. Most of those 500 are one- or two-man operations. There are about 18,000 silviculture workers in the province.” Emery feels that there is far more work to be done than what is funded. “If we could get it up and running, we could bring in more people. We’re not talking about one season’s work. We’re talking about enough work for most of these young guys to retire on.”

Emery believes there is no problem with the level of funding available to fo re s t renewal. “It’s what you do with the money that is the problem,” he says. “If you spend the money on social, economic or municipal studies that are involved in the forest community, you won’t have money to get the job done.” One of the major concerns of silviculture contractors is FRBC. While some contractors have advocated the abolition of the agency, others are prepared to give it a chance to work.

“We have to give FRBC a grace period of some sort,” says Betts. “As an association, we don’t want to throw out the bureaucracy with the bath water. There are good things and good potential in FRBC. This is the first time we have had a government commit itself to a program of silviculture that seems sustainable.” Betts sees part of WSCA’s problem as one of their own making. “The industry is made up of a lot of rugged individualists, a lot of small operators. There is a reluctance from our own members to commit themselves to an industry group. They are concerned with their own businesses.

They haven’t appreciated that there is a second function in being a business person and that is to look after your industry.” Another problem is that firms are generally small and that their work is seasonal. However, Betts feels that WSCA is making real progress in dealing with FRBC.

“The fact that I’m in business to coordinate the problems between FRBC and the contractors suggests that we’re moving towards a solution.” Betts points out that before FRBC existed, enhanced silviculture programs were han-dled through other kinds of funding. Now it’s all through FRBC. He indicates there is concern that the traditional industry might be shut out if laid-off workers are going to get first shot at FRBC work.

“What of the juvenile spacers and brushers and weeders that traditionally do this work? Will they be shut out of this process? That ’s a question we want to ask. I think people tend to see forestry work as some kind of social program sponge for whenever they have some identifiable group that has trouble with their job situation or layoffs.

They forget that there is already an established work force out there that needs the work now.” Betts continues, “The silviculture industry is caught where the rubber hits the road. It’s seen as a convenient place for everybody to go. What we’re saying is that if it is done strategically and with the existing industry in mind, maybe we can create a lot of new jobs out in the silviculture industry. Don’t displace the people that are there or replace the existing industry. “It’s not as simple as people make it out to be. We hope to work with FRBC to contribute significantly to a real positive development in the woods,” Betts concludes.

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