The Forestry Crisis, Government Inaction, and Community Solutions

The Forest Industry is in crisis and the BC government says there is nothing they can do about it. But with over 1000 layoffs in the last few weeks, 46 mill closures since January and 10 000 forestry related jobs lost in the province in the past year it is time to find some solutions to the forestry crisis.

The Blame Game

The Minister of Forests blames forestry’s decline on external factors and washes his hands of the whole thing. The truth is that bad forestry management has left British Columbia vulnerable to fluctuations in the US market and the value of our dollar. Cyclical downturns will always be difficult, they need not be devastating.

The government insists that crisis is based on US protectionism schemes, the strong Canadian dollar and related housing downturn. But the BC government was happy to sign on to a Softwood Lumber deal which favoured American protectionists and left us even more vulnerable to market fluctuations.Logging  companies and elected officials laid the groundwork for this crisis by embracing ideas which liberalize log trade to the US, even if it means cutting jobs in Canada.

Corporations and the government brought in changes that allow unrestricted log exports, market related stumpage, and dissociation of logging from milling. There are plenty of skilled woodworkers in BC, but forest policies and outdated tenure systems have made it nearly impossible for these workers to get there hands on domestic fiber. Government policies have closed the doors on domestic log markets, and value-added products.

So with this history can the Minister of Forests and Liberal government continue to insist that there is nothing that could have prevented this mess, and furthermore nothing that can be done to fix it. The crisis and the Minister’s intransigence has led to calls for Rich Coleman’s resignation. Again the Minister refuses to move.

Growing Seasons

For BC’s forest sector to prosper it needs to move from the ‘largest logs at the lowest prices’ model to value added production. Apart from the devastating impact trade liberalization has had on Forest jobs and communities there is one simple reason that BC will always come up short in the global market for raw logs. Simply put, in our northern climate our trees grow more slowly.

This means that for a sustainable forest industry we need to allow longer times in between harvest rotations. Coleman’s Forest Action Plan tries to give forest companies a competitive edge by reducing the time in between rotations, but short term rotations lead to low-value fiber that is increasingly only useful for pulp. Not only do short term rotations lower the value of the wood, it does so to the peril of the long-term sustainability of forest sector. The other answer to BC’s competitive disadvantage, continued unsustainable logging of old growth, is also unworkable.

Real Estate

The large forest companies see opportunity in this crisis. While log prices fall, land prices continue to rise. The answer for company’s whose only concern is the share value for their foreign investors – real estate. Again the Forest Minister has been happy to comply. By deleting private land out of Tree Farm Licenses, the Forest Minister is enabling the sale of BC forests for urban development. If there is one thing that Forest workers and environmentalists can agree on, it is that developing forest lands is a bad idea.  Forests cut down may grow back, but forest cut down and paved over is another ball of wax all together.

Predictable, cyclical, downturns in the forest industry happens about every 10 years. Ultimately, the current downturn may work out just fine for large corporate entities that have enough cash to weather the storm and wait for those less fortunate to fall. Downturns create the opportunity for forest companies to demand larger government concessions, exacerbating, not alleviating the boom and bust cycle. If government doesn’t step in and make changes, we will likely see further corporate consolidation in the forest industry, before the crisis is over. That means more control of BC’s forests to fewer corporate entities whose bottom line is competing on the global market and making money as fast as possible for shareholders.

What will BC’s forest industry look like if this crisis is allowed to play itself out? Fewer, larger, foreign owned forest companies, decimated forestry communities, fewer mills and hence more raw logs exports, broken unions, less pay for workers… It sounds pretty bad for BC, but there are still some vested interests that would benefit.

Solutions

While government officials continue to blame BC’s lost jobs on the US market, there are plenty of ways they could have insulated the industry from such a crisis, and steps they can take to ensure its future. Perhaps if the provincial government was interested in the common good of BC’s citizens rather than corporate interests alone we wouldn’t be in this mess.

When we ask the question ‘who controls BC forests?’; we need to ensure that our answer is not a rhetorical: ‘corporations and government’. Rather, the answer to the question should be a resounding ‘communities and First Nations who live on the land in question’.  In BC we are blessed with many skilled woodworkers, and value-added specialists, but currently communities don’t have access to their forest for small-scale operations and value added production.  To gain this shift in control; tenure reform, and incentives leading to an open domestic log market are necessary.  To create a truly sustainable industry, solutions must include a ban on raw log exports and a rise in minimum stumpage rates to eliminate high grading, and waste wood. A comprehensive look at the changes needed to ensure a healthy forest exists in the Solutions Summary of the Forest Solutions for Sustainable Communities Act.

Opportunity

The current forestry crisis is an opportunity. When times are good it is easy to stay the course, even if that course leads to an ecologically and economically unsustainable industry. In tough times we need to find long term solutions, solutions that benefit our communities, our industry and our environment.

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