Opposition mounts to government talks on opening forest reserves to loggers
The B.C. government is holding talks with the forest industry over ways to supply more timber to beetle-hit Interior sawmills, including the option of opening forest reserves that have until now been out of bounds to loggers.
The discussions have been limited to a few stakeholders who have saw-mills in regions where the mountain pine beetle has devastated the timber supply. But they are raising alarms - even from within the forest industry - that the province is acting unilaterally on issues with sweeping effects on the future of the forests and the communities that depend on them.
The issue of forest reserves has come to the fore after more than a decade of destruction in the woods by the pine beetle. Some sawmills, even the most modern, are going to be shutting down within three to five years unless more timber is found.
A report to be released later this month by the International Wood Markets Group is expected to show that sawmills are running out of economically accessible timber and that another round of mill closures, this time as a result of the beetle rather than the economic downturn, is expected to hit the Interior. The Cari-boo region is expected to be hit particularly hard.
"We don't have a lot of time on our hands," said John Allan, president of the B.C. Council of Forest Indus-tries, which represents the Interior industry.
Allan said the industry has been discussing the issue with government but wants a public dialogue on how additional timber supplies can be found. He said he is concerned that as word leaks out about what is under discussion, opposition will galvanize around the hot-button issue of logging in reserves. That could limit rational discussion, he said, noting that some of the timber set aside for visual quality objectives has already been killed by the beetle, making harvesting a more benign option.
"It's time for the government to get out and get ahead of this issue."
But logging the reserves is the equivalent of swapping jobs in industries like tourism for jobs in logging, say tourism operators. A forests minis-try study showed tourists view dead, grey trees as part of a natural cycle. Clearcuts do not evoke the same sentiments, Eric Loveless executive director of the Wilderness Tourism Association said in an April 4 letter to the government.
Much of the concern over revisiting decisions that were made a decade ago to protect forest lands is coming from foresters themselves. Reserves under consideration include everything from set-asides to maintain visual quality, to wildlife patches and old-growth management areas.
"We have maintained those old-growth areas or reserves for a variety of purposes. They are lifeboats of bio-logical diversity across the landscape," said Mike Larock, director of professional practice and forest steward-ship for the Association of B.C. Forest Professionals. "They are important contributors and they occupy a very small percentage of the land base."
Sharon Glover, association chief executive officer, said foresters are concerned that sustaining mills, not forest health, appears to be driving the government initiative.
The province's 5,000 forest professionals have not been part of the discussions, she said.
"We are disturbed by the quickness and by the very small number of people that have been included in these discussions.
"What's missing from our perspective is the focus on the forest. The forest is the wealth of B.C.," she said. "When you have a healthy forest, then you have a number of mills that spring up and use that wood. If it is well-managed and sustainably man-aged, as B.C.'s forests have been, then forestry and those small communities in rural B.C. will prosper.
"If you don't focus on the forest, and you focus on the mills, that's when you've got the equation backwards. The mountain pine beetle took 10 years worth of merchantable timber out of B.C. We don't have the luxury of not focusing on our forests."
The reserves were set aside in land-use plans arrived at in some cases after years of confrontation and community involvement. During work on the Cariboo-Chilcotin Land Use Plan, for example, at one point an angry crowd hung in effigy commissioner Stephen Owen, who headed that land-use pro-cess, forcing cancellation of that particular meeting.
Now, said Glover, she fears short-term decisions may be made based on short-term economics.
"Decisions were made quite a while ago to protect certain areas. They were really good reasons. A lot of thought was put into it. We need to have broad discussions and serious, open discussions about what data are out there, what fibre is out there. We would argue that the focus has to be on the forests and whether they are healthy or not, and whether what the government may be proposing is good, sustainable forestry."
However, Jobs, Tourism and Innovation Minister Pat Bell said that maybe it's time some of those decade-old decisions were revisited in light of the changes to the landscape the beetle has wrought.
Bell, who was forests minister for three years, is leading the review of timber supplies along with current Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Steve Thomson.
Bell justified the province's decision to proceed with limited public engagement because the data are still being collected.
"I don't think anyone should assume that there is in any way an exclusionary effort going on here. Government needs to understand what options are available to it."
"Until we have good information that we can then sit down and provide to people who care about the region, then it's really premature to have those discussions."
He said those open discussions could begin within a month or two.
The issue of coping with the fall-down in what the forests ministry calls the midterm timber supply - the amount of timber available during the time it will take for the beetle-killed forests to recover - was initially raised last September by the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
UBCM passed a resolution urging the province to do a cost-benefits analysis of the impact reserves - such as those set aside for visual quality objectives and for wildlife tree patches - are having on the timber supply for mills.
However, a fire last December that destroyed the Burns Lake sawmill and killed two sawmill workers, prompted the government to move more quickly on the timber supply issue.
The province has conducted a timber review in the Burns Lake forest district which, Bell said, has shown there is an additional 100,000 cubic metres of wood available if the mill should be rebuilt.
However, there are concerns outside government that that is not enough additional timber to justify a modern new mill.
Independent MLA Bob Simpson said a modern mill requires a diet of one million cubic metres of timber a year. The province would need to make the entire land base available to logging, he speculated.
Allan said the forest industry under-stands the concern at Burns Lake. The depth of the situation compels the government to act, he said, but he expressed concern that if the government searches outside the Burns Lake timber supply for additional wood, it may only pass the pain on to another community and another sawmill.
"I know the government is looking for incremental timber supplies. If there is enough timber, great; if there isn't, then you can't manufacture a new sawmill or an extension of a mill that needs to be rationalized with government subsidies and other forms of assistance. It's not what we have been doing for the last few years and that has led to a smaller industry. But it is very efficient and very competitive.
"And that's what you need in the world markets."