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Les Leyne: B.C. defers cutting big swaths of old-growth forests; fears that thousands of jobs are at risk

Harvesting deferrals for 1.7 million hectares
The B.C. legislature in downtown Victoria. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The B.C. government is well on the way to reach a target of temporarily deferring logging plans and operations on 2.6 million hectares of old-growth, according to a Friday update.

Officials started a rush job last November to get First Nations buy-in for the huge suspension of timber harvesting. To date the deferrals have been implemented on 1.7 million hectares, including a million ­hectares of old-growth forest most at risk of irreversible loss.

Forests Minister Katrine ­Conroy said suspending harvesting in that area — the size of 4,100 Stanley Parks — provides time and space to develop a more sustainable way to manage ­forests.

Although there were complaints about the short consultation timeframe, the Forests Ministry got responses from nearly all the 204 First Nations in B.C. and 75 of them so far have agreed to the deferral areas specified in the old-growth plan laid out last November.

Just over 60 asked for more time.

Another 619,000 hectares was included after the consultation, the government said.

Forester Gary Merkel, who was deeply involved in the old-growth review and the implementation of the plan that emerged, said the deferrals have taken longer than anyone could have predicted, but he is “not unhappy” with the progress.

Very few companies are not respecting the deferrals and all the major ones “understand that we do need to make this shift as long as we can figure out a way to work around these things.”

Whether the deferrals will be temporary or eventually become permanent is the million-dollar question that everyone is asking, he said. The answer depends on individual local plans.

Companies can defer harvesting voluntarily under a set process, or the government can order it, rescinding approved permits and preventing new ones from being issues. Conroy said most companies are voluntarily deferring, but the government is looking at cases where it may need to order by legal means.

The government says 80 per cent of the most-at-risk old growth identified by experts last fall is no longer threatened by logging, either because of the deferrals, other protections or because it is uneconomic to log.

The ministry originally estimated that the deferrals would cost about 4,500 jobs, but industry and other sources said the number is likely to be far higher. The Council of Forest Industries estimated that more than a dozen mills will close at a cost of up to 18,000 jobs.

The current provincial budget includes $185 million allocated over three years to support people affected by the new restrictions on logging. It includes community and company programs to deal with dislocation and up to $75,000 to workers over 55 to escort them out of the industry.

But the costs are far higher than that. The provincial budget also recognizes the sweeping changes made in overall forestry management that were jammed through the legislature last fall after the NDP cut off debate.

The budget projects a $700 million drop in forest revenues this year, blamed partly on the reduced harvesting of old growth, which contributes to a 12 per cent drop in the annual timber harvest. That’s a 40 per cent drop — from $1.8 billion to $1.1 billion — with more reductions expected in subsequent years.

As well, the B.C. Timber Sales program, which auctions cutting rights to Crown land, cancelled all sales in the potential deferral areas the day they were announced in November. It is projecting a one-third drop in revenue.

B.C.’s ultra-cautious budget projections have been increasingly off the mark in recent years. Billions of dollars worth of deficit expected at the start of the year don’t materialize. But the scope of the projections reveal a far more dramatic impact than the original estimate of just 4,500 jobs lost.

Canim Lake Band Coun. Carl Archie was on hand at the update and applauded the forest policy changes. The band has its own forest stewardship program, and Indigenous forest policy has to be increasingly considered at all provincial levels.

Canim Lake supported the deferral map in its part of the Cariboo, but Archie said the council reserved the right to review case by case and provide or withdraw consent.

“With the changes, our forests will no longer be held hostage by multinational corporations who siphon wealth from B.C. and have reinvested more than $6 billion outside the province,” he said.

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