Some economic disasters, like a wildfire that destroys a community or the collapse of a major export market, naturally catch governments flatfooted.
But the coming economic devastation from the pinebeetle disaster has been clear for at least 10 years, and the federal and provincial governments have failed families and communities.
The disaster's scale is enormous. The problem is simple to understand, and has been evident for years. The pine beetle is killing 90 per cent of B.C.'s lodgepole pine. For the last few years, there has been a rush to harvest the dead wood while it is still commercially viable. The government has virtually given the timber away to forest companies to encourage haste. (Which in turn has prompted a complaint from U.S. producers under the Softwood Lumber Accord.)
But in the next few years, the wood will be beyond salvage. The timber supply will be decades away from regrowth. And thousands of jobs will be lost for more than a generation.
Independent MLA Bob Simpson raised questions in the legislature based on the government's recent "Mid-term Timber Supply Project Report," which forecasts massive job losses in four timber supply areas - Lakes, Prince George, Quesnel and Williams Lake - from 22,890 jobs typical of the pre-beetle days to 10,806.
For forestry-dependent communities, the impact is huge. In Quesnel, for example, a quarter of all jobs could be lost - the equivalent of 45,000 jobs vanishing in the capital region. The lost forest jobs will mean tough times for retailers, falling home prices and declining populations.
The threat is not in the future or short-lived. The report forecasts that the economically viable dead pine will be gone in 18 months in the Quesnel timber supply area. It says the harvest won't return to pre-beetle levels for more than a century.
Government response has been inadequate. There has been some effort on replanting, and regional economic development trusts have made some investments. There have been measures to promote mining as an alternative industry. But the government's Pine Beetle Action Plan is long on good intentions and short on specific measures. It was released in 2006, only covered to 2011, and hasn't been substantially updated in six years. The last progress report was four years ago. That hardly shows urgency or focus.
The challenge of responding to the beetle disaster was huge, and would stretch any government's abilities. Major commitments to retraining, economic diversification, relocation funds and community supports could all have been part of the response. Openness about the trouble ahead could have helped families make tough decisions. And, as the government was running larger-than-expected surpluses through much of the last decade, there was an opportunity to fund these measures.
But the government failed to prepare a long-range plan. The latest report proposes stopgap measures such as weakening environmental regulations to allow logging previously protected forests. The measures, which would require a cabinet override of forestry regulations, would reduce the job losses for a few years. But the immediate benefits of measures such as logging steep slopes could be offset by permanent damage to forest capacity.
While it might be largely invisible to those in the Lower Mainland or the capital region, this could be the worst economic crisis the province has faced since the Great Depression. It is past time for a government response that recognizes the great damage ahead for families and communities, and a full, open debate on ways to minimize the harm.
© Copyright 2013