BC forest bill urgently in need of a rewrite

February 20, 2013

It wasn’t so long ago that the British Columbia government was investing lots of political capital in striking a more productive “new relationship” with First Nations.

Which makes it all the more disturbing that in the midst of the very short upcoming legislative session the provincial government intends to introduce a bill that could result in the single largest giveaway of public forestlands in our history — a bill that would unnecessarily drive up the costs of resolving outstanding aboriginal rights and title issues to the financial detriment of all British Columbians.

This most decidedly is not what British Columbians deserve on the eve of a provincial election.

For BC residents in the populous urban south, the words “forest policy” may trigger yawns. But for numerous First Nation and non-First Nation rural communities alike, a government plan that could fundamentally alter who gains access to natural resources is a life and blood issue.

Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Minister Steve Thomson does his government no favors by characterizing as “speculative and misleading” recent media accounts that suggest that the upcoming bill could herald an unprecedented giveaway of our forests.

Thomson could easily end such speculation by simply publicizing the draft bill. But he hasn’t done that. With each passing day, his government’s secrecy becomes more and more untenable.

Equally untenable, Thomson has failed to counter media speculation that the proposed bill is but a scant two paragraphs in length, and that it grants Cabinet broad powers to “roll over” existing forest licence agreements into long-term, perpetually renewable agreements known as Tree Farm Licences (TFLs).

Once TFLs are granted, they cannot be taken back without triggering huge compensation payouts. In essence, they bestow private property rights to public forestlands and become major impediments to the just resolution of aboriginal land claims. Settlement costs increase, because corporate shareholders must first be paid out.

Thomson, in an attempt to dampen an emerging controversy about this bill, has said that none of this would happen in a vacuum. “One requirement for any proposed conversion will be ensuring that the public interest is addressed, through the support of the local community, First Nations, stakeholders and the public.” But he disingenuously appropriates this language from the findings of an all-party legislative committee that did not recommend what the government now proposes to do.

Besides, such a declaration inspires little confidence. We have no indication that the bill itself (which matters much more than Ministerial assurances) would embed legal requirements that First Nations, rural communities and other stakeholders must be consulted before any such transfers occur, or ensure prior aboriginal consent.

Perhaps the most distressing thing about the proposed bill is that Thomson appears to forget that it was not that long ago that the government was making tentative steps to chart a new course with First Nations and forest resources.

Under new arrangements between the province and numerous First Nations, Forest and Range Agreements and later Forest and Range Opportunities (FRO) were signed, giving First Nations direct control over allotments of timber.

First Nation forest managers and leaders welcomed the thrust of the initiative, which was to ensure that the provincial government did not leave their communities on the sidelines. This is why so many of them availed themselves of the opportunities presented by the new agreements.

But the agreements were flawed. They did not grant long-term rights of access to First Nations, nor did First Nations gain opportunities to manage forestlands for a range of values over time on defined areas of land within their territories. Troubling then, that this proposed bill may grant forestry companies just that.

An analysis of the FRO agreements, based on numerous interviews and case studies, laid out a blueprint for improvements. It called for the sharing of all timber-cutting revenues currently collected by the province on a 50-50 basis with First Nations; defined areas of forests to be assigned to First Nations so that they had the means to shape their own economic destinies; and established new co-management regimes where the provincial government and First Nations worked together as true partners.

The problem with the proposed bill is that the opportunity to make such a transition would be made exceedingly more expensive by further entrenching the corporate hold over public forestlands, thus necessitating huge payouts to company shareholders down the line.

This is bad public policy. If overdue change is to come, if a new relationship is to be charted, surely the needs of First Nations and rural communities deserve to be addressed first. 

Judith Sayers holds the Visiting National Aboriginal Economic Development Chair at the University of Victoria. She served as Chief of the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni for 14 years. Ben Parfitt is resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and author of True Partners: Charting a New Deal for BC, First Nations and the Forests We Share.