Given the short duration of the upcoming legislative session and the provincial election to follow, a government plan to introduce a scant two-paragraph bill granting it powers to fundamentally alter the course of forestry in BC is disturbing to say the least.
According to several sources who have been briefed on the legislation, the bill would give the provincial cabinet powers to grant forest companies de facto private control over public forestlands without first having to notify or consult with the public. Instead of companies enjoying rights to log set volumes of trees on public forestlands, companies would gain dramatically expanded powers to log trees on defined areas that in effect become their own semi-private fiefdoms.
The bill follows a year in which the government has faced mounting criticism over a forest health crisis due to decades of over-cutting and an unprecedented mountain pine beetle attack. Numerous sawmills now face closure, with all the hardships that portends for many rural communities.
It also follows the losses of sawmills in Burns Lake and Prince George due to explosions and ensuing fires. In the wake of those events, various government documents were leaked indicating that the provincial government was revisiting a controversial “rollover” idea first pursued 25 years ago. At that time it met with such a groundswell of political and public opposition that the initiative was scuttled.
Then provincial forest critic and MLA for Prince Rupert, Dan Miller, called it “privatization on a massive scale” and warned: “Never before in the history of the province has this kind of giveaway been contemplated.”
The policy as then envisioned is precisely the one now being contemplated by the government. Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Steve Thomson indicated so in a letter last September to Steve Zika, CEO of Hampton Affiliates, which owns the destroyed Burns Lake mill.
If the new legislation passes, the provincial cabinet could grant forest companies the rights to roll over numerous volume-based forest licences into area-based Tree Farm Licences. TFLs bestow by far the most secure rights of access to publicly owned trees of any arrangement with the provincial government. The new legislation could massively expand their use, beyond the limited number now issued.
TFL lands still remain publicly owned and the government still collects timber-cutting or stumpage fees from the companies logging them (although distressingly few such fees in recent years). But once a TFL is granted, a company has something that is very difficult for the province to take back without triggering prohibitively expensive compensation payouts.
Worse, TFLs become tradable or sellable assets. If the right corporate suitor comes along, say a pension fund that has zero interest in maintaining sawmills let alone building desperately needed value-added facilities like furniture plants, so be it.
Forest company executives routinely trot out the trope that TFL’s provide them the security they need to invest in renewing forests. But such claims are not credible. Companies have historically made the minimal reforestation investments required by law regardless of the licensing arrangement with the government.
The “security” argument is a smokescreen, then, designed to draw attention away from the real reason companies covet TFLs — their asset value.
The government will no doubt argue that by granting Hampton a TFL it gives the company the assurance it needs to build a new mill in Burns Lake. But in making the offer to all other forest companies, the government opens the door to a rapid escalation in corporate control of public forestlands. With the change, some of the biggest forest companies in the province — Canfor, West Fraser and Tolko — could gain unprecedented sway over public forestlands, without having to make any investments along the lines of what Hampton proposes.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of such a fundamental change on the eve of a provincial election is that the government leaves unaddressed the most evident problems.
Our forests face the gravest health crisis in modern history.
Communities that have for decades depended on our forests for their social and economic wellbeing, face equally daunting challenges.
Yet there is a way out. Policies that would end rampant wood waste, policies that would earmark certain forested areas as available to log in exchange for company commitments to make minimal investments in new or modernized mills, policies that would result in greater, more effective reforestation efforts, are all within our grasp.
In their absence, giving what remains of our forests away is lunacy. A responsible government would delay implementing such contentious legislation and give the public time to digest just what the implications of such a move are. Or the Opposition could signal now that should such a bill pass it would be immediately repealed upon a change in government.
Ben Parfitt is resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' BC Office and author of Making the Case for a Carbon Focus and Green Jobs in BC’s Forest Industry.