BC government should heed the call to consult on forestry changes

December 19, 2013

British Columbia’s forests represent the single-largest renewable asset that we have, a public resource shared with First Nations across the province.

Whatever the fate may be of our non-renewable natural gas resources, a topic that dominates today’s news headlines, our forests can and should be there for generations to come.

Healthy forests ensure that we have clean water to drink and clean air to breathe; a diversity of animal and plant species that is found in few places on earth; a vital tool to assist us in addressing climate change; and a source of wood and other forest products that for decades has delivered economic, social and cultural benefits.

For these reasons and many more, decisions about how our forests are managed are of vital public policy importance.

In the lead-up to the last provincial election, the government proposed changes in an omnibus bill that would have opened the door for a significant increase in the number of Tree Farm Licences or TFLs.

Such licences grant their recipients long-term, compensable rights to log trees on defined areas of public forestland. Due to concerns raised by numerous British Columbians, the government chose to remove the TFL clauses from the omnibus bill.

During and after the provincial election campaign, however, the government indicated that it intended to reintroduce legislation that could once again result in more TFLs being awarded. However, before doing so the government said it would consult with the citizens of British Columbia.

It has been more than six months since that consultation commitment was made, but the government has yet to reveal what British Columbians will be asked to comment on, or what opportunities they will have to voice their concerns.

Disputes over the management and conservation of British Columbia’s forests are legendary and have often pitted one or more groups against one another. Clayoquot Sound, Haida Gwaii, the Nemiah and Stein valleys, and the Great Bear Rainforest are among many examples.

Far less common is when groups that sometimes oppose one another find common ground. The government’s proposed TFL policy is one such exception to the general rule. And history tells us that it is an area where government should proceed with extreme caution.

In the late 1980s, the then Social Credit government enacted a similar proposal into law and subsequently had to rescind the legislation after hundreds of British Columbians turned out at public meetings and voiced their concerns.

Recently, eight organizations representing a wide array of British Columbians signed a letter to Premier Christy Clark and Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Minister Steve Thomson, calling on the government to honor its public consultation promise. The groups represent a significant cross section of the provincial population and include public sector and forest industry workers, First Nations, environmental organizations and the forest industry.

Today, the Ancient Forest Alliance; the BC Government and Service Employees Union; the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ BC Office; ForestEthics Solutions; the Independent Wood Processors Association of BC; the Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers of Canada; Sierra Club BC; the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and Wildsight released the letter publicly in a further effort to bolster discussion about the important public policy decisions that lie ahead.

“The public has the right to a province-wide consultation process during which they will have the opportunity to respond to clear, unambiguous proposals from their government. Rural communities and First Nations must also have the opportunity to be fully involved in the process and have adequate time and funding, as needed, to participate,” the letter reads in part.

“Otherwise, your government risks re-igniting the significant resistance that caused the failure of its last attempt to make these changes.”

All decisions to turn publicly owned assets over to third parties to manage for long periods of time — whoever those parties may be — carry with them important social, cultural, and economic consequences.

The stakes are raised even higher today, in the face of the massive changes that are underway in our forests, due to climate change and a land-base that is depleted of much of its once great bounty and in need of nurturing back to a healthy state that can sustain communities.

The signatories to the letter may have different ideas about what changes to forest policy are needed to make for a more socially, environmentally and economically just world. That should be of no surprise. But what they and others want is to be part of a conversation — a conversation that government has promised and would be wise to deliver.

Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.