Community forestry is envisioned as an alternative approach to forest management that empowers local people, achieves economic development, and enhances ecological sustainability. This vision of community forestry may facilitate consensus and offer temporary relief from the battle between development and conservation goals. However, communities face significant challenges as they attempt to put theories into practice.
In 1998 under the NDP government, the BC Ministry of Forests designed and implemented a pilot project to experiment with community forestry. Currently, eleven communities hold a Community Forest Agreement (CFA) and manage 264,462 hectares of forest land, approximately 0.4% of the total forested area in the province. This equates to a harvest of 241,158 m3, less than 0.3% of the total provincial annual allowable cut (AAC) of 83.7 million m3.
The demand for community forests far exceeds available lands, and early into the pilot project it was evident that opportunities to expand the area and number of CFAs would only occur through significant tenure reforms. In 2001, the newly elected BC Liberal government instituted sweeping forest policy changes. These were designed to benefit the major licensees, and consequently had negative repercussions in rural British Columbia. Although community forestry was peripheral to their agenda, as a counterbalance to their pro-industry policies, the new government committed to increase the volume of wood available to First Nations, community forests, and woodlots. Through the 2003 Forestry Revitalization Plan, a small fraction of the 20% tenure take-back from the major licensees was reapportioned to expand the community forest program.
Ironically this commitment came from the Liberal government that initially dismissed community forestry as “social engineering”. Their change of heart came about with the realization that community forestry had valuable political currency. During the lead up to the May 2005 provincial election, the Ministry of Forests sent out a flurry of press releases inviting 24 communities to apply for CFAs. In less than a year, at least on paper, the community forest program tripled in size. To date there are as many as 32 communities waiting to receive a CFA. If all invited CFAs are awarded, an additional volume of 784,300 m3 will be managed by community forests. This would bring the total volume managed by CFAs to 1.025 million m3, still only 1.2% of the provincial AAC.
There are great expectations of community forests, and the program expansion brings renewed hope to some rural communities in BC. However, these new ventures face several challenges simultaneously with little support and with few resources -forest management planning, starting up a business, finding markets, engaging community members in decision-making processes, and so on. Legislated under the Forest Act, CFAs operate in a policy environment sympathetic to large industrial operations, and in the global marketplace, the economies of scale do not weigh in favour of small community forests. The CFA includes a few unique elements including rights to manage some non timber botanical products, but the primary focus is still timber extraction. In fact, the Ministry of Forests has offered several CFAs located in socially contentious areas such as local watersheds as a strategy to access timber that was previously inaccessible. There are concerns about the manner in which the community forest program is being implemented and administered by the Ministry of Forests, and people fear that the ‘community’ aspect of community forestry is being eroded to the point that the CFA is beginning to look like just another industrial license.
In spite of the challenges, there are several dedicated individuals working hard to ensure that community forests remain viable. Through the actions of the BC Community Forest Association, CFA holders are finding strength and support. In January 2006, members of the BCCFA succeeded in negotiating a short term ‘stumpage fix’ for CFAs, and are currently exploring long term solutions. Before proceeding with awarding any new CFAs, the Ministry of Forests has commissioned an independent review of the entire community forest program. Contingent on the review, the government may be willing to review and renegotiate specific terms and conditions of the CFA license agreements, application process, and regulations. Politically, it behoves the government to guarantee that community forestry in BC has a sustainable future.
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