Ten years ago, the provincial government made the welcome decision to provide greater opportunities for First Nations to participate in and benefit from forestry operations in British Columbia.
The result was a flurry of new resource and revenue sharing agreements between the government and numerous First Nations that underscored the government’s commitment to enter a “new relationship” with the province’s first peoples.
There was a fundamental flaw with the agreements, however, one that is now painfully obvious as today’s government contemplates controversial new rules that could allow a handful of companies to further entrench their monopoly control of our forestlands.
The flaw was that the agreements were of only short duration (five years) and failed to provide secure rights of access to defined areas of forestland for First Nations to manage as their own.
Complicating matters, the short-term, non-replaceable licences typically covered tracts of trees killed by mountain pine beetles. What the government clearly intended was to marshal First Nations in a concerted “salvage” logging effort in response to the beetle-kill — something everyone knew could not be sustained.
To underscore the vulnerable position that First Nations now find themselves in, let’s turn to the contentious proposal now emanating from the provincial government. The government wants to expand the current network of Tree Farm Licences (TFLs). These licences carry by far the greatest financial value in the marketplace because they grant TFL holders exclusive rights to manage defined areas of forest over many, many years.
Of somewhat less financial value, but nonetheless still coveted, are replaceable forest licences. These licences are different from TFLs in that they confer rights to log defined numbers of trees over very large landmasses known as Timber Supply Areas (TSAs). In TSAs, numerous forest licensees may operate. Over time, this has resulted in gentlemen’s agreements of sorts where one forest licence holder sticks to a particular corner of a TSA while others operate elsewhere.
What the government now proposes is that the holders of replaceable forest licences be allowed to roll them over into TFLs. The government contends this will result in improved forest management (proponents claim that area-based licences provide greater security, which allows for increased investments in forest management, although there is scant proof of this). But the great danger is that it will deepen existing inequalities. The privileged will reap the windfalls while the underprivileged do without once again.
Currently, First Nations can log roughly 8.3 million cubic metres of trees per year. But the vast majority of that cut — 70 per cent — occurs under non-replaceable licences in forests that are running out of trees. Meaning, more than two thirds of what First Nations have is virtually worthless. It can’t be converted because the timber, quite frankly, isn’t there.
Individual First Nations do hold a few TFLs, and many smaller forest tenures that might be called “mini TFLs” — small woodlots and community forest tenures — and they are grateful for them. But under the proposed government “rollover” policy, First Nations only have about 1.2 million cubic metres of licensed cut that could conceivably be rolled into TFLs.
By comparison, what do the five largest forest companies operating in BC stand to gain under the government’s proposed rollover legislation?
Between them, Canadian Forest Products, West Fraser Timber, International Forest Products, Tolko Industries and Western Forest Products control the bulk of what is logged each year in BC. This includes 80 per cent of all logging done under TFLs. And because of the vast number of replaceable forest licences that those same companies hold (they have 19 times more replaceable forest licence volume than do First Nations) they could effectively triple their TFL holdings in the province, while First Nations, rural communities, small value-added mill owners and others do without.
Allowing a massive conversion of forestlands that further solidifies the hold that the shareholders of a privileged few companies have on Crown lands that are claimed by First Nations is a policy fraught with peril. It undercuts efforts to reach fair and just settlements with First Nations while unnecessarily saddling provincial taxpayers with potentially huge compensation payouts to those same companies down the road, in the event that lands turned over to them as TFLs are subsequently needed to resolve outstanding aboriginal rights and title cases.
It’s time to roll the proposed rollover policy into the ditch and have a long overdue, wide-ranging discussion about how we chart a new, inclusive course in British Columbia, where the forests we share in common are truly shared. Anything less betrays the public trust and is a giant step back from an as yet unfulfilled new relationship.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip is president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs. Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the CCPA-BC.