There was a time when securing a good-paying forestry job in British Columbia was not just an option but an expectation for many.
This was a time when the provincial government took an active role in managing our public forests and overseeing the activities of private companies whose workers cut trees, milled wood and made pulp.
All that started to change in the mid 1970s and has accelerated over the past 20 years, during which approximately 100 mills shut down and more than 22,000 forest industry jobs disappeared. Communities that once thrived with a forest economy experienced severe economic decline and the number of people employed in forestry has fallen precipitously.
BC’s forest industry today is a shadow of what it was in the post-war period. But it doesn’t have to be this way. I believe from my five decades experience with the industry, including as minister of forests in the Dave Barrett government, that a better way is possible.
A system of regional-based forestry would best serve British Columbians, our forests and forestry-dependent communities. In recentyears I travelled to many forestry communities on Vancouver Island, the Interior, the Kootenays and along the coast with two registered professional foresters and a land planning researcher to examine the state of BC forests and speak with people who took control of local forests and forestry operations in order to protect valuable public resources for future generations and to create jobs today.
Right now we have an industry that for the most part is in the cheap commodity lumber business. We have pretended that we’ve developed a scientifically sound base for sustainable forestry practice with a successful licensing and cutting program, and we’ve pretended that we get full value for our trees with a competitive system for selling timber and cutting rights. On these points, and more, we have failed.
We no longer have reliable inventory data from the forests ministry, we no longer have a Forest Service and we no longer have adequate reporting from either the public or private sectors.
But if the provincial government again took responsibility for our public forests and didn’t forfeit their management to multinational corporations, this iconic BC industry could again thrive and create economic growth and improve equity and fairness throughout the province.
To do this, we need a new model of regionally based forestry management governed by a BC Forest Charter passed by the legislature that includes an overall vision for the province, sustainability principles, standards and goals for this valuable public resource. We should institute a new independent officer, a Forester General, to work with regional chief foresters on local land planning processes. This would correct the mistakes we’ve made over the decades of transferring more and more authority to manage our public forests over to corporations.
The number of mills closed and jobs lost since the early 1990s and the unprecedented number of raw logs exported from BC from 2013 to 2016 — 26 million cubic metres — demonstrate why we need to do forestry differently.
We can look to Sweden and other Scandinavian countries for better models. Sweden’s total forested lands are equal in area to BC’s commercial forests, but the Swedes manage their lands in a scientific manner. We do not. Over time, Sweden has increased the value and volume of trees growing in managed forests and we can learn from them.
Change is also needed because of our failure to deal honourably with First Nations who have borne the burden of decades of misguided forest policies. Regional management would allow First Nations to participate in planning processes as equal partners, which is not only vital but the direction in which our courts are telling us we must go.
Such change may seem radical, but if future generations of British Columbians are to benefit from one of our province’s greatest natural resources, change is needed now.
Bob Williams has been involved with BC’s forestry industry for five decades, including as Minister of Lands, Forests and Water Resources in the Dave Barrett government. He just released the report “Restoring Forestry in BC: The story of the industry’s decline and the case for regional management” with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.