Comment: Poorly managed forests responsible for mill closures

Sawmill shutdowns and closures in British Columbia should come as no surprise to those who have been paying attention to how forestry has been managed in the province over the past 20 years.

Forest fires, a slump in the global timber market and the pine-beetle epidemic have been blamed, but — while these are real factors — the crisis is rooted in a much deeper problem: A long history of poor forest management.

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B.C.’s forests, under the Forests and Range Practices Act, are being managed primarily for the profit of large corporations, not what’s in the best interest of local communities.

Now that the easy and most accessible areas of forest have been logged across the province, rather than using their profits for mill upgrades and to support B.C. operations, companies have been on a worldwide buying spree, investing in American and Scandinavian forest enterprises with their record earnings from the last high-profit cycle.

One key issue is that the last B.C. government eliminated appurtenance — a condition that required companies to operate mills and provide regional employment in order to harvest the province’s timber. The previous provincial government also changed forestry legislation so that the Ministry of Forests no longer has to approve a company’s cutting plans, effectively turning oversight of B.C.’s forests over to industry, without a watchdog looking out for community interests or our environment.

These changes have resulted in a concentration of forest harvesting rights in the hands of a few major companies that supply their “super mills,” processing hundreds of logging truckloads a day. The goal is to supply cheap two-by-fours to a global market — and that means endless boom-and-bust cycles.

The fallout is now being shouldered by B.C. workers, communities and the environment. The centralization and amalgamation of the forest industry has resulted in fewer mills, diminished woodlands staff, fewer harvesting contractors and less investment in small communities. Communities located within forest tenure areas continue to see diminishing benefits from the forests that once surrounded them.

It’s time to bring forest management back into the hands of British Columbians. We must better manage the broad range of forest values including water, forest ecosystems, wildlife, recreation and community stability.

The door is open to change now.

In a positive step, the B.C. legislature recently passed

Bill 22, an amendment to the Forest Act, which allows the Minister of Forest, Lands, Natural Resources and Rural Development to step in to stop the sale of forest tenure (rights to log on provincial lands) that is not in the public interest. After Canfor’s recent shutdown of their Vavenby mill, they have arranged a pending sale of their forest licence in that area for $60 million to Interfor, which plans to ship raw logs out of the region.

B.C. ‘s decision on this sale under Bill 22 will be the first big test of the government’s resolve to regain control of our communities’ forests.

Adding to the mix, on private managed forest land in B.C., we are experiencing a level of forest liquidation never before seen. A significant portion of B.C.’s logging — particularly in the Kootenays and on Vancouver Island — happens on private land, but current B.C. regulations on logging private land provide little to no protection for wildlife, water, or local communities — while giving logging companies big tax breaks. Large companies are cutting down trees on private land so quickly that wildlife, forests and communities are going to bear the consequences for generations.

B.C. has created an opportunity for British Columbians to be heard. Both the Forests and Range Practices Act and Private Managed Forest Land Program are up for review and are in public comment periods that end in mid-July. It will be up to British Columbians, and their government, to decide if we continue on the downward slide or take a new path toward forest and community revitalization.

Visit engage.gov.bc.ca to share your views on the state of forestry regulation across the province.

John Bergenske is conservation director of Wildsight, a registered charity, based in B.C., that works to protect biodiversity and encourage sustainable communities in Canada’s Columbia and Rocky Mountain regions.

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