Time for investment in forests

Tom Fletcher's column focuses on challenges facing the timber industry.

VICTORIA – The B.C. government’s emergency committee on timber supply has produced its report, but it leaves many of the big questions unanswered.

Can the Burns Lake sawmill, destroyed by fire last winter, be given enough timber to rebuild? It’s likely, committee members concluded, if areas that are currently considered “marginally economic” are harvested.

With nearly half the pine in that region dead from beetle infestation, and much of the better timber already cut, that means harvesting areas that would produce only about two thirds of the volume that is currently considered economical to log.

Will eight more sawmills have to close once the beetle-killed timber becomes too degraded to cut in the next few years?

Committee members hold out hope that extending the cut to less economic timber stands can reduce this impact as well. But with the current cut far above historical levels to maximize beetle-kill harvest, some industry contraction seems inevitable.

All this depends on adequate forest inventory and investment in replanting, fertilizing and provision of additional roads and power lines that would allow access to timber and potential bioenergy development. And that is where the political fight lies ahead.

The timber supply committee delivered a unanimous report, despite the harsh divisions between the B.C. Liberal and NDP members who serve on it.

NDP forest critic Norm Macdonald, vice chair of the committee, agreed it did good work during the seven months it has toured affected areas of the B.C. Interior. But he said the roots of the problem go back a decade, to when the B.C. Liberals started reducing support for forest health just as the beetle epidemic was spreading.

Ten years ago the government removed the obligation for the province to reforest areas affected by disease and fire. This was not only at the peak of the epidemic, it was one year before devastating wildfires raced through the Interior in the summer of 2003.

“In 2002, the government removed its obligation to replant those areas, and cut the budget by 90 per cent,” Macdonald told me. “The three-year budget that’s in front of us is keeping on the downward slide, and it’s not what people in communities are saying is the answer. So that has to change.”

The opposition, the auditor general and various forest experts have been blasting the government for the degraded state of the timber inventory, at a time when environmental changes have been sweeping.

Steve Thomson, minister of the newly amalgamated forests, lands and natural resource operations ministry, points to the urgent efforts to upgrade the government’s detailed picture of the state of the forests, so it can consider new cutting, planting and fertilizing efforts. But there’s no denying that he came to the job in a crisis that will take more spending in the future, and he will have a hard time finding it as Finance Minister Kevin Falcon looks to balance the books for the 2013 election.

If nothing else, the pine beetle epidemic has forced the B.C. government to consider some of the intensive forest management that we hear about in Scandinavia, one of those places that supplies B.C. with wood furniture.

And it has prompted renewed interest in offering new forest tenures to aboriginal communities with unresolved resource claims.

Under current law, the government can only direct award new forest tenures to aboriginal communities. So part of the committee’s proposed solution is to “expedite negotiations” with the Burns Lake First Nations to give them a chance to harvest some of the marginally economic forest areas that remain.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter for Black Press. tfletcher@blackpress.ca

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