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BC Liberals, NDP chop at each other over forestry

If British Columbia's once mighty forest industry had a theme song, it might be the Ray Charles classic, "If I didn't have bad luck, I'd have no luck at all."

Hammered by punitive U.S. softwood lumber tariffs, a pine-beetle infestation and the imploded American housing market, many B.C. mills have shut down, chain saws have fallen silent and thousands of people have been laid off.

Yet forestry hasn't made it to the centre ring in the election campaign, beyond some political sniping among the parties.

"It's surprising how little the forest sector features in the campaign," said Peter Pearse, a natural resources expert who chaired a landmark royal commission on the B.C. forest sector in the 1970s.

He said politicians can't broach policy ideas that are too radical because they must tiptoe around the softwood lumber deal.

"We're heavily constrained in what we can do there," said Pearse.

In the forestry-dependent towns on the B.C. coast and the Interior, voters are paying close attention to Liberal and NDP plans for the industry's future.

Though the overall goals are similar maximizing employment in a more sustainable industry each party is accusing the other of policies that take the forest sector in the wrong direction.

The New Democrats have promised to reform Crown forest tenure policy, restrict raw log exports, increase research and development linked to climate change and tackle the backlog of beetle-kill wood.

The incumbent Liberals' Forest Minister Pat Bell calls it skimpy.

"I find the NDP platform is very high-level. There is no substance to it," Bell said Thursday. "Our platform is very focused."

The Liberals' four-point plan stresses expanding the forestry-based bio-energy sector, taking a new business approach to reforestation that exploits its carbon-offset potential, pushing harder into the Chinese export market and doing more to promote use of wood materials in non-residential construction.

The B.C. Liberals say a New Democrat government would kill the hard-fought softwood lumber agreement with the United States.

Bell said the NDP leader stated last year that scuttling the agreement was an option, which would provoke a trade war with the U.S. at a time when stability is needed.

NDP Leader Carole James said the deal does need fixing, but within the terms of the international agreement.

She said Thursday that reforms are needed that include preventing unprocessed logs from being exported from B.C. and changing forest company tenures.

But she said she doesn't want to scrap the softwood lumber deal altogether.

"I don't want to spend money on lawyers. I want to spend money on revitalizing the industry," James said.

The deal signed in 2006 ended five years of punishing U.S. import duties imposed after American producers who complained Canadian lumber was heavily subsidized through low Crown stumpage fees and other policies.

The managed-trade agreement substituted a combination of Canadian export duties and/or quotas that kick in when lumber prices fall below certain benchmarks.

The influential U.S. Coalition for Fair Lumber Imports, which launched the complaint, watches every twitch in Canadian forestry policy for violations of the deal. Not surprisingly, they've found plenty, most recently this week when the province adjusted stumpage rates to facilitate reopening of a Canfor Corp. mill in the northern town of Mackenzie.

Bell said he won't "lose sleep" over the coalition complaints.

The province works with the U.S. Commerce Department and American trade officials before implementing any policy changes, including the "strictly technical" stumpage reduction for Mackenzie, he said.

"The U.S. softwood coalition has a specific objective and that's to reduce the amount of lumber that we ship into the U.S.," he said.

Fair enough, said NDP forest critic Bob Simpson, but the coalition has the power to file a formal complaint and shows every sign of doing so.

It's the Liberals who are inviting a trade war with the U.S., he said.

"I don't think that the Liberal government is being careful enough with what they're doing with forest policy and they're inviting a trade war," he said.

Pearse agreed with the NDP that Liberal policies have promoted concentration of ownership in the forest industry in B.C. He favours broad-based tenure reform that would make it easier for new investors to come into the sector.

Steve Mertl reports for The Canadian Press

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