Province considers 'option' of over-riding chief forester to supply mills with timber
A leaked Ministry of Forests document reveals a proposal that the B.C. government override the top official charged with managing the province's forests to find a timber supply for Burns Lake.
The forestry-dependent town west of Prince George lost its main employer in a December fire that destroyed its sawmill and killed two workers.
The April 7 document addressed to the cabinet under the name of Forests Minister Steve Thomson has come to light at a time when the government is under increasing pressure to reveal plans it has so far kept confidential to address the pending collapse of the Interior timber supply.
At least 12,000 of 22,890 associated forest industry jobs are at risk, a second document briefly posted Tuesday on a government website shows.
The April 7 brief requests cabinet approve a plan to increase the timber supply in the Lakes Forest District west of Prince George so the Burns Lake mill can be rebuilt. But, it explains, to get that timber, the government will need to take steps that put at risk old-growth conservation, other non-timber values and relations with first nations.
Further, the document states the province's chief forester, the independent authority who is responsible for management of forests, may not agree with the government's plan.
The solution the document proposes: "Suspend current Forest Act provisions for the Chief Forester to set the annual allowable cut and the minister to make licence apportionment decisions, in the Lakes Timber Supply Area. Vest these functions with the Lieutenant-Governor in Council [the provincial cabinet]."
Such moves "will be controversial with the public," the document states.
Resources analyst Ben Parfitt of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives was one of a handful of people to receive the cabinet submission in a brown envelope.
"They are essentially saying this runs counter to the powers vested in our chief forester and they are indicating they are prepared to potentially introduce extraordinary legislation to override these powers so that these politically motivated decisions can be implemented. And that causes me real concern," Parfitt said.
Parfitt said government policy has been to delay the day of reckoning when the economic impact of the pine beetle attack leads to thousands of job losses in Interior towns.
Thomson said Thursday that the submission was only an internal draft . "It hadn't come up through the process yet," he said. "The point is: all options were going to be put forward and what option was going to be taken into the public consultation process - those were yet to be determined."
He said public consultation will be held before any decisions are made.
The chief forester is an independent authority who sets the sustainable timber supply for the province based on complex modelling that takes into account other values besides conventional forest products. Former chief forester Jim Snetsinger resigned at the beginning of March. A process is underway to pick a successor, Thomson said. He also said the role of chief forester is important in the province.
"Any implications of looking at changing that role would have to be considered very, very seriously," Thomson said.
The Thomson submission to cabinet is the second leak within as many days, adding to speculation that the province is intent on unilaterally deciding how to accommodate the forest industry's need for timber given a collapse in timber supply precipitated by the mountain pine beetle infestation.
An earlier document, posted on the Ministry of Forests website briefly Tuesday, detailed a drastic loss of timber that in some instances will hit mills by 2014.
Independent MLA Bob Simpson, who has been leading a charge for open discussion of the government's forestry agenda, said it is no coincidence that confidential information is being leaked to the public.
"People are panicking about what the government is thinking of doing," he said.
Even the forest industry has expressed concern to him that the government's "overthetop reaction" to the loss of the Burns Lake mill threatens the industry's hard-earned social licence to log in public forests.
The two documents, he said, provide public evidence of "the revelation the government was trying to avoid: We are running out of timber."
John Allan, president of the B.C. Council of Forest Industries, last week urged the government to open a public dialogue on the timber supply issue. Measures under consideration, he said, will have drastic implications for adjacent sawmills also faced with timber shortages.
The document posted briefly to the Forests Ministry website outlined exactly what four Interior forest districts - Lakes, Prince George, Quesnel and Williams Lake - are facing as sawmills run out of available wood. The documents contradict earlier statements by government officials that the numbers are not yet available.
In the Lakes forest district, the allowable cut is projected to drop from two million cubic metres of wood a year to 500,000, with a loss of 1,139 jobs. By logging forest reserves, such as old-growth management areas and wildlife corridors, and removing other restrictions on the land, such as limits on logging on mountains, the timber supply can be increased by an additional 100,000 cubic metres a year, enough to add another 87 jobs.
Parfitt said despite the hardship in the community of Burns Lake, it is folly to put at risk wildlife and biological diversity, and to risk more landslides to save only 87 jobs.