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Government backs down on controversial forestry bill

The British Columbia government has scrapped parts of a bill that would have made controversial changes to how public forests are managed.

"During the process, after introducing legislation, we've learned there needs to be a broader public engagement on the intent of the legislation," said Steve Thomson, the minister of forests, lands and natural resources operations.

Section 24 of Bill 8 would have allowed the minister to invite companies to convert volume-based licenses to area-based tenures, a move critics said would increase private control of public forests. The proposal arose through discussions of how to provide access to enough timber to justify the rebuilding of the Hampton Affiliates mill that burned last year in Burns Lake.

"Clearly there are very significant benefits to area based management," said Thomson. "There's also been a lot of misinformation, perceptions created around what it means and what it is and what it isn't."

It's an important area of public policy and there needs to be more public consultation, he said. The government needs to make sure there are public benefits when applications for conversion come forward, he added.

The government is doing the right thing by withdrawing the forestry changes, said Norm Macdonald, the NDP's forestry critic.

"This is a good step back," he said. "These are complex issues you're dealing with and you definitely need the broader community onside. Clearly there was a level of discomfort that doesn't suit anyone's interest."

The changes were enabling legislation, with details to follow, said Macdonald.

"Let's be honest, the government is not trusted on these issues and that's a difficult thing," he said. "You had the important pieces of the legislation coming later with regulations and policy. Therefore it's not clear with the legislation what we were actually discussing. And with forestry, it's the detail."

Bob Simpson, the independent MLA for Cariboo North, has been raising concerns about the legislation since before it was introduced. Opposition to the bill was coming together in a major social media campaign, emails to ministers and a petition which quickly gathered 1,000 signatures, he said.

"It's the right thing to do," he said. "I think what we've demonstrated is an independent MLA in the legislature using the legislative function, with support using social media from people in the community who know exactly what is going on... is able to get the government to back down."

People understood what the government was trying to do and they were against it, he said.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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