Not the year of the forest community

March 1, 2003

Premier Campbell announced in January that 2003 would be the "Year of the Forest." BC's forest companies, workers, and communities are hoping he's serious, given how devastating the softwood lumber dispute has been. But forest communities and workers should be careful what they wish for--a closer analysis shows that "solutions" to the dispute may actually mean greater hardship.

The reason is that the BC government's forest policy is being squeezed between demands from two camps: BC forest companies and the U.S. trade lobby. Neither is interested in social returns--jobs and economic development--to forest communities. Both are lobbying the BC government for an end to the social contract--the forest policies that guarantee that community and social benefits are derived from logging, policies that have been at the root of rural economic development in BC for generations.

These social obligations include appurtenance clauses, which ensure there are local jobs in mills near logging sites. The social contract includes restrictions on mill closures and raw log exports. Also included are minimum cut requirements--making sure that forest license holders don't "cream" the best trees when prices are high and shut down mills when prices are low.

This social contract is being negotiated away in the softwood lumber talks. Forest Minister Mike de Jong has already endorsed most of these changes, so BC should expect them in the Year of the Forest. The minister is publicly resisting more raw log exports, likely because British Columbians of all political stripes are enraged when raw logs are loaded--along with, metaphorically, BC jobs--onto ships and trucks bound for competing sawmills in the U.S. or Asia. However, don't be surprised if we see more Orders-in-Council like last February's, which allowed the export of an additional 3 million cubic metres of raw logs from the North Coast, rather than a more transparent policy change.

What does the end of these social clauses mean for BC's forest communities? One forest executive said that solutions should allow companies, contractors, and workers to "share the pain." All indications are that this won't be the case.

Forest companies have already been granted weaker environmental regulations. Now it looks like they will have all their social responsibilities to local communities removed and be allowed to process BC's logs wherever and whenever they want. Minister de Jong has also announced that companies will receive compensation if any forest tenure is removed from their current licenses in order to establish a "market-based" stumpage system, even though forest companies didn't pay a cent for these cutting rights in the first place. Companies may even be given greater rights over their remaining forestry tenure, such as extending their licenses beyond the present 25-year period. Where exactly is their pain?

Contractors will also do just fine, as evidenced by the three standing ovations from the Truck Loggers Association during Premier Campbell's Year of the Forest speech. Logging contractors will continue to benefit from the contracting-out of logging operations by large forest companies. A higher (more unsustainable) allowable annual cut, or AAC, will also help them.

What about workers and communities? Enter the pain. These policy changes will result in considerable consolidation in the sawmilling and pulp sector. With tenures more easily transferable, forest companies with capital will gobble up smaller, more indebted companies for their cutting rights. Expect fewer but bigger mills, and more ghost towns.

For the mills that are not permanently closed, temporary closures will occur more frequently due to the elimination of minimum cut control and the easing of restrictions on mill closures. So, expect less stability, even for those communities that hang onto a mill.

A higher annual cut means our forests will be depleted even faster. When there's no quality, accessible trees left, forest companies will invest elsewhere. What will forest communities do then? For them, it's "short term gain for long term pain."

The bottom line: this is an end to the social contract that has governed BC for half a century--unless the government sits down with industry, communities, and workers to figure out how to replace it. That would be a true "heartland" strategy. Otherwise, forest companies will hold no social responsibilities in exchange for being able to access BC's most valuable public resource.

Welcome to the Year of the Forests. Hang onto your hats.

Dale Marshall is Resource Policy Analyst for the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.