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What Price the Beetle?

The Cariboo-Chilcotin region alone wants $489 million. Victoria commits to far less.

Ben Parfitt 4 Oct 2005TheTyee.ca

Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives B.C. office.

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[Second in a three-part series]

The BC government and communities hard hit by the pine beetle are miles apart on a funding formula to help seed the economic survival of interior towns.

Already, BC's unfolding insect infestation has killed millions of pine trees over an area the size of Ireland, and as reported yesterday, after the frenzied logging of affected timber ends, that region risks economic devastation.

But with the BC government turning increasingly to Ottawa to come up with more funds, there are growing questions in interior communities about what BC will ultimately bring to the table to fix the problem.

"I'm not sure what the eventual number is going to be, but it's going to be a big number. . a big investment of dollars [needed from the province]," says Williams Lake Mayor Rick Gibson. No one in the region is looking for a giant 'welfare payment', he hastened to add. Rather, investments in a slew of things that will help his community and others 'move forward' from an oft-predicted crash in future logging rates.

'Action plan' from rural BC

Gibson is one of a number of local municipal leaders, economic development officers, and forest industry, community and conservation representatives in the Cariboo-Chilcotin who decided at the beginning of this year to band together and map out an "action plan" for dealing with the mountain pine beetle outbreak. The outbreak is considered among the worst forest health crises ever to confront BC.

After settling on a name for themselves - the Cariboo-Chilcotin Beetle Action Coalition -they drafted a report that was sent without fanfare to the BC government in the spring, shortly before the provincial election.

Their undertaking was understandable. The region's three main communities - 100 Mile House, Williams Lake and Quesnel - will be slammed by the outbreak, which is near its worst in this particular region.

The vast Chilcotin Plateau, spilling west from the Fraser River to the distant Coast Mountains, contains large areas of almost pure lodgepole pine forests. It also has significant tracts of "mixed" forests, containing a diversity of tree species including spruce and fir. But even in the mixed forests, pine trees are commonly found. And if current estimates about the ongoing outbreak hold true, this region will see 80 percent or more of its mature pine trees killed in the near future.

Any process involving forest industry players meeting to discuss the economic importance of BC's timber assets will be regarded with suspicion by some. But even if the conclusions reached by the coalition overstated the magnitude of what's at stake by, say, 50 percent, the numbers they arrived at were nothing short of humbling.

The coalition estimated that if you took all of BC's commercially viable pine trees today, logged and processed them, the economic opportunity associated with that activity would be $200 per cubic metre of wood for a grand total of $240 billion. In the Cariboo-Chilcotin region, the slice of that $240-billion pie was estimated to be one fifth or $48 billion.

The one percent solution

The coalition then came up with a proposal. Considering that the vast majority of trees now dead or soon to be killed will be on Crown or public forestlands, some money should be reinvested in the region by the provincial and federal governments.

How much? Well, in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region, the coalition suggested that an "appropriate" investment level would be one percent of the total estimated economic value. Cutting to the chase: $480 million.

The coalition went on to advocate that the Province and Ottawa each ante up $240 million. It said that the monies should be placed in a trust fund for targeted investments in reforestation, economic diversification initiatives, infrastructure, conservation and other measures. All of which was intended to soften the impending blow that will come after the beetles run their course and today's dramatically inflated logging rates - a response to the beetles - come crashing down.

"The epidemic is here, it's a natural event of potentially catastrophic proportions but it can be managed to maximize returns on the asset base, to rebuild the asset base and to manage liabilities and risks in the longer term," the committee concluded.

Beyond the beetle

In recent months, BC Forests Minister Rich Coleman has referred to the Cariboo-Chilcotin Beetle Action Coalition and other bodies like it that have emerged in the Interior as important "advisory" organizations whose thoughts are helping shape "the standards for the economic future" of the post-beetle, forestry-dependent Interior.

In a September opinion piece that Coleman penned for the Victoria Times-Colonist, he also talked about how his government recently committed $1.7 million in provincial funding to the coalition. He was silent on what, exactly, the money was to be spent on other than to say it would be used to develop a "regional recovery" strategy. And he made no comment whatsoever on the substantial public funding the coalition believed was needed to address the problem.

Two days after Coleman's words were published, NDP Forestry Critic and Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson wrote his own piece, which appeared in the Williams Lake Tribune. Both pieces were fortuitously timed for just before an annual convention of municipal and regional government leaders in Vancouver in the last week of September which provincial MLAs routinely attend.

In his piece, Simpson accused the BC Liberal government of "doing nothing" of substance on the issue between 2001 and early 2005. And he went on to say that "the order of magnitude difference" between the amount of money the province had provided to the coalition and what the coalition said was needed to do the job was "staggering".

For his part, Gibson says he's happy with the fact that the province has made an initial amount of money available to help the coalition flesh out the details of a multi-faceted recovery plan. "The last thing we need is a whole lot of money dropped on the plate right now," Gibson told The Tyee. "What we need is a good solid plan, with some real strategies on the actions we need to take to diversify our economies and help us through the situation."

But at the end of the day, he said "a substantial investment" on the order of the $480 million originally proposed by the coalition would be needed.

When the beetles finally run their course in BC over the next few years, it is estimated that pine trees spread over 4 million hectares of provincial forestland will have been killed and left unlogged. No one knows for certain what the immediate economic implications of the attack will be. But with an upper estimated range of 700 million cubic metres of dead and unlogged pine trees remaining on the landscape following the attack, tens of billions of dollars worth of timber will be unusable for lumber and wood pulp, commodities that have been the economic mainstay of much of interior BC for decades.

Whose responsibility?

Coleman has admitted that at least some of those lands should be regenerated with new trees, and he's said that his government has committed $86 million to date to do that work.

But if the Cariboo-Chilcotin Beetle Action Coaltion's numbers are even close to what is needed for their region let alone others - $86 million will vaporize very quickly. It doesn't come close to what is needed to do the reforestation job, let alone the more tricky and demanding work of charting a new economic development and forest conservation strategy for the region.

At the same time, provincial funds that would otherwise have been available to increase a publicly funded reforestation and economic recovery program are being foregone.

As Simpson wrote, "the provincial government assigned next to nothing to address the mountain pine beetle epidemic in this year's budget yet they gave corporations an 'unexpected and surprising' corporate tax cut of about $500 million dollars. In my estimation, this government has its priorities wrong and it clearly does not understand the magnitude of the issues that we in the 'heartlands' are confronted with."

Another critique might be that the government understands perfectly well the magnitude of the problem. It just wants someone else to pay, namely, Ottawa.

On September 19, Premier Campbell held a press conference in Ottawa. With his hand hovering over a map showing the boggling spread of the beetle outbreak in the province, he announced how his government planned to spend $100 million in federal funds to respond to the unfolding attack. Later, he said he wanted $1 billion more from Ottawa over the next 15 years, calling the $100 million already provided by the federal government a "down payment".

Oddly, in the ensuring reports on Campbell's announcement, nobody seems to have asked the premier the obvious question: Why all the focus on Ottawa? Isn't forestry a provincial responsibility?

Members of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Beetle Action Coalition may soon be asking another question.

With tens of billions of dollars having poured into Victoria in forestry revenues over the years, what does the provincial government believe is a reasonable amount of money to return to our communities to reinvest in the resource and our economic future? We've got our number, says the coalition. What's yours?

Tomorrow: Can We Replant a Beetle-Proof Forest?

Yesterday: The Bug in BC's Economy

For an animated map showing the spread of the Mountain Pine Beetle in BC, go here.

Freelance writer and researcher Ben Parfitt lives in Victoria. He is a frequent writer and commentator on natural resource, business, environmental and social justice issues for a variety of publications and author of Forest Follies: Adventures and Misadventures in the Great Canadian Forest.  [Tyee]

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