There's a big economic crunch coming for northern Interior forest communities, and a small group of B.C. politicians has been tasked with figuring out how to ease the pain, or spread it around.
They have been taking a crash course in timber management for the past two weeks - "Forestry 101, 202, and 303," Liberal MLA John Rustad called it.
The study sessions are in the form of a special committee on timber supply. It was struck toward the end of the last legislative session, when it became apparent some tough calls will have to be made in the near future. It's been apparent for years, of course. But the timber falldown was always just over the horizon. A combination of circumstances has pushed it to the here and now.
The decisions will revolve around the fact that in a few years, the timber harvest will be nowhere near what it is now, even if accepted premises about things like viewscapes and even parks are completely rethought. Cutting was greatly accelerated for the last several years to harvest as much mountain pine beetle-killed wood as possible while it still had some value.
But there is a historic falldown coming that will reduce production at numerous sawmills. The committee this week ventured out into the affected areas to hear about the implications.
Governments can be criticized for how this 13-year nightmare has been handled. Ottawa promised about $1 billion to cope with the beetle, but lost interest early on. Officials have told the committee there is still $800 million outstanding on that commitment.
And B.C. Liberals have been quite reticent when it comes to complaining about that.
But the scope of the catastrophe is so vast, it's hard to imagine any government handling it successfully.
The biggest beetle outbreak in history has affected 18 million hectares across B.C.'s Interior, 10 million of them harvestable forest.
The original projections going back to the start in 1999 were that the vast majority of the lodgepole pine forest would be destroyed.
The more recent estimates are that the kill rate is about 53 per cent.
Experts now say the beetle epidemic hit harder, but didn't last as long as expected, and is now almost over.
Still, it's created a completely unprecedented situation in the B.C. forests. The industry has been running flat out for years to keep up with the beetle, knowing that the "boom" would eventually come to an end.
Now the end is apparently near, and the committee will make recommendations on whether it can be mitigated, and how. An early discussion paper says the time is coming when beetle-kill is no longer worth salvaging, and the overall supply of mature timber will be reduced.
Under current land use and forest management rules, "it is an anticipated that cuts will be reduced as it becomes increasingly difficult to find timber to harvest."
In about 10 years, the overall supply will be an average 20 per cent below pre-beetle levels (and markedly below the current amped-up levels) and the reduction will last for up to 50 years.
In the hardest-hit areas, timber shortages are already a fact of life, and the harvest drop will likely be much higher.
An internal report brought to light by independent MLA Bob Simpson showed an estimate of half the 22,000 forest jobs in four regions vanishing.
Another report pondered allowing for a political override on the chief forester's powers in order to open previously sacrosanct areas to logging.
The controversy over those ideas and the focus on Burns Lake, where the mill burned down and it's an open question on whether it's economical to rebuild it, helped spur the creation of the committee.
The committee's working premise is that the falldown can be eased if the conventional environmental, economic and social considerations are "rebalanced."
But it's implicit in the terms of reference that there will less timber around in the future than there has been in the past, no matter how much mitigation is attempted.
The MLAs are mandated to consider the optimal health of communities and "as orderly a transition as possible to post-beetle cut levels."
Those two are mutually exclusive, no matter how they cut it.
© Copyright 2013