Earlier this year, my assistant, Laurel Walton, attended a meeting about the forestry industry in Castlegar, one in a series hosted around the province by the British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU).
They were held in four regions B.C. where the forest industry has been the number one employer for decades with local leaders in each of these regions taking part. The emphasis was placed on drawing upon the collective wisdom of the participants.
Over this column and the next, I want to focus on this important issue. Having recently read the report from the meetings, I believe it’s critical to let others know what’s happening to a significant source of British Columbian identity and livelihood. B.C. Forests in Crisis – A Community Call for Reform can be downloaded from the BCGEU’s website at http://www.bcgeu.ca . Please feel free to contact my office in Castlegar to request a copy if you are without internet access for whatever reason.
This report tells us about the current situation in our forests and some of the background to it. It also offers some specific observations, experiences and suggestions of participants. These provide a basic framework for a plan of action based on positive solutions. If the old adage is true that the first step in solving a problem is recognizing that you have it, the sooner we begin, the better.
It’s important to recall that our forest policy was deeply affected by the softwood lumber dispute which resulted in our country being on the hook for $1 billion. In the mood of those times, the provincial government dramatically changed direction, moving to a market-based system for wood product price-setting. This was to be a “results-based” system under the Forest and Range Practices Act (FRPA). Clauses requiring logs to be processed in the local area were removed, controls were cut and regulation at every level was reduced or eliminated.
At the same time, B.C.’s forestry ministry was decimated. Apparently, more cuts are planned even though almost one-quarter of the budget has been slashed since 2008. Forestry Service positions have been dramatically reduced, leading to the near-impossibility of enforcing what little legislation remains. The decades-old research branch was eliminated and reductions were inflicted upon the inventory program and critical administrative support.
Since information about these changes has been subjected to spin and propaganda, many people are unaware of what’s really happening in our collective backyard. The B.C. government has stated that it is reshaping the forest sector to restore B.C. advantage to our number one industry, both at home and abroad. According to the government these changes are supposed to revitalize the economy, generate jobs and spin-off benefits for communities, and provide long-term contributions to our province’s standard of living.
Unless “revitalize” has somehow come to mean decimating forests, closing dozens of mills and wiping out thousands of jobs, these predictions were not realized.
Vast expanses of interior forests were damaged by the mountain pine beetle. The value of our wood products is less than half it was in the late 1990s, inflicting devastation in people’s lives and reducing revenue to the province.
No wonder that forest communities in general feel that our interests have been sidelined. We are struggling with the ongoing tidal wave of effects from the damage that’s being done to our forests, our communities and our eco-system. Families are being hit hard and forced into separation, migration to better jobs and/or poverty.
As one Castlegar participant put it, “Forests should be the future for our kids, but right now, there’s no real future.” This worry is not groundless but, as I’ll explore next time, it doesn’t need to become reality.
Alex Atamanenko, is the Member of Parliament for B.C. Southern Interior