Comment: Forest trusts would preserve the public interest

For thousands of years, residents of B.C. have had the freedom to roam our lands and forests. Public ownership of most of our forests has maintained this freedom. Unlike other countries, we can go on millions of hectares of forest without the barriers of fences, gates and no-trespassing signs.

Our pioneers kept our forests and lands in public ownership for economic reasons. They were afraid that private timber interests would misuse the forests, control the timber supply and restrict enterprise in wood manufacture. Public ownership of our forests was seen as a means to ensure sustainable management. Public timber would be available on an open market to encourage a diversified wood products industry.

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The first priority of the Ministry of Forests in the upcoming year is to “begin public consultation on legislation that would allow the conversion of volume-based licences to area-based licences.”

The B.C. government and forest corporations will sell the benefits of area-based forest management. Area-based forest management is a better system. Responsibility for all aspects of forest management in an area is superior to requirements for re-foresting piecemeal areas that have been logged.

While area-based forest management is a better approach, the public needs to realize that there are serious problems with area-based forest licences. The licences will be long-term leases of public forests held by forest corporations. Politicians will try to persuade us that this is not a form of privatization because the public will retain ownership of the land.

However, it will really represent a point of no return in enclosure of our public forests into the private interest. A gradual process of giving timber corporations control of public forests has been underway for more than half a century. A few forest corporations control most of the public timber supply under a non-market administrative pricing system.

This has restricted enterprise in value-added wood products and made our exports vulnerable to discriminatory tariffs or taxes. Many forest-dependent communities face timber-supply problems in the next few decades. The intended economic outcomes of public forests have not been realized.

Previous attempts to move toward area-based forest licences have been rejected by the public. History tells us that gradual and persistent efforts to enclose public or common land into the private interest are usually successful. If we want to preserve our public lands and forests and our special freedom over this vast area, we need a better area-based forest management solution.

The most promising institution for area-based forest management is the local forest trust. Local trusts would involve a relatively large area of forest landscape that would be managed as a sustainable business by an elected board and a staff of forest managers. It would have a charter for comprehensive management of timber and other forest resources and economic opportunities. Timber would be sold on an open market. First Nations would have their own local forest trust or be represented on the board of a local trust.

A B.C. forest trust assembly would audit, support and provide a court of public appeal. It would be governed by elected and professional delegates from local forest trusts. The assembly would report to the B.C. legislature.

A new devolved system of local forest trusts for managing public forests would provide area-based sustainable forest management that is democratic and accountable to the public. Free enterprise could replace the current system of restricted enterprise. Diversity in wood-products manufacture would be encouraged and our vulnerability to export tariffs and taxes would be removed. Forest corporations would be able to purchase logs and maintain operations.

This new system of devolved, democratic, free-enterprise forest management institutions would be sufficiently robust to prevent future enclosure of our forests into the private interest. We would maintain the freedom of our lands and forests.

We need not surrender our birthright for area-based forest management. Rather, area-based forest management under local forest trusts can protect our birthright, revitalize our forest economy and build strong social licence for comprehensive, sustainable forest management.

Andrew Mitchell is a retired forester who lives in North Saanich.

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