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BC Election 2020
Labour + Industry

Where They Stand: The Parties on BC’s Ailing Forest Industry

Wildfires, pine beetles and markets have left the once dominant industry in steep decline. Now’s the time to reinvent it, some say.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 20 Oct

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives amidst the stunning mountains and rivers of Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

With the forest industry in steep decline over recent decades, battered by market conditions, the mountain pine beetle and wildfires, timber-dependent communities are keeping a close watch on B.C.’s political parties’ plans for the sector.

The three main parties vary significantly — the Greens propose a major shift in forestry, the Liberals want to woo greater investment, while the NDP platform is comparatively thin.

Bob Simpson is a former NDP MLA and the mayor of Quesnel, an Interior forestry town that lost 200 direct forestry jobs last year. He says only one party is positioned to give the industry the overhaul it needs.

“For me, as a mayor of a forest-dependent community, I would like to see an NDP majority government, because if what we’ve experienced over the last three years we can experience even more over the next four years with a majority government, I think we’re going to track in the right direction,” he says.

While Simpson describes the NDP forestry platform as “weak” — it’s largely encapsulated in two bullets about planting trees and rewarding the highest job creators — he says the party’s record in working with communities to address the forestry decline is promising.

“We’ve had pretty direct access, in a way that we didn’t experience under the Liberals, to senior government officials and the minister of forests for the last three years,” he says, adding that Premier John Horgan has called him directly for his opinion before announcing forestry initiatives.

He adds that while the Greens have a more comprehensive platform and promising ideas, they are unlikely to form government.

The Greens’ forestry platform addresses everything from increasing oversight by communities and First Nations, balancing industry demands with science and adding value to forest products while ending raw-log exports.

“The other parties are trying to convince voters to vote for them without having to say much at all,” says Green party candidate Adam Olsen, who is running for re-election in Saanich North and the Islands.

He says that throwing more resources at the industry is not a long-term solution to the problems that plague it.

“The fundamental difference between our approach and their approach is, they’ve got a leaking bucket,” he says. “It was full of water and it’s been dripping out, and their response is to just keep filling it with water. At election time, you can fill the bucket up full of water and say, ‘Look, everything’s perfect, the bucket is full, we’re just going to keep putting money in.’”

By contrast, the Greens are proposing what Olsen describes as a “top-to-bottom transformation” of the industry by balancing economic and social and environmental values.

“The first thing that we need to do out of respect for the taxpayer is plug the holes in the bucket. Fix the system that’s broken. Fix the things that are letting us down, make the transformation in the systems, then talk about how it is that we’re going to replenish the bucket.”

The BC Liberal platform offers an industry-first approach with a focus on accelerating reforestation, creating more responsive stumpage fees and legislation to protect what it describes as the “working forest.”

John Rustad, Liberal candidate for Nechako Lakes and forestry critic under the current government, says creating a more appealing business environment is needed to lift the forestry industry out of its current nosedive.

“You have to have a competitive sector,” he says. “The Interior has seen a cost increase of about 33 per cent and the coast around 69 per cent. According to the analysts, we’re the highest cost producers in North America and that leaves our industry vulnerable.

“It puts communities’ workers at risk of curtailments when you see downturns and prices.”

The Liberal platform notes 45 full or partial mill closures and over 10,000 job losses in the past two years under the NDP.

But the forestry decline predates the current government. Over the past 20 years, employment in forestry has been cut nearly in half, In 2000, shortly before the Liberals took power, there were 97,131 workers in the province’s forest sector. That dropped to 52,435 by the time the NDP took power three years ago, according to Statistics Canada.

The NDP has deferred logging in 353,000 hectares of forest in the province, but has left other old-growth areas, such as the Central Walbran Valley in the foreground, without protections. Photo by TJ Watts, Ancient Forests Alliance.

Shortly before the election call, the NDP announced it would defer logging in 353,000 hectares of forest, more than half of which is old growth. While Horgan has indicated on the campaign trail that an NDP government would implement all recommendations in a report about managing old-growth forests, the BC NDP was non-committal in an emailed statement.

“We will be engaging, on a government-to-government basis, with impacted First Nations on the way forward from those recommendations,” it said. “From there, we will work with industry, workers and the environmental community on ways to protect biodiversity — as laid out in the report — while still supporting workers and communities.”

News that Horgan apparently plans to implement the recommendations came as a surprise to Charlene Higgins, chief executive officer for the BC First Nations Forestry Council. When announcing the old-growth deferrals last month, the NDP government said it was waiting on consultation with First Nations to make long-term decisions about preserving old growth.

But Higgins says not only has that consultation not taken place, the NDP government has stalled on implementing the First Nations Forest Strategy, which was created in partnership with the province and endorsed last year by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, the First Nations Summit and the BC Assembly of First Nations.

The strategy outlines six goals to address reconciliation in alignment with B.C.’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act and facilitates an increased role of First Nations in the stewardship of forest resources.

“They’re committing to implement the old-growth strategic review report in its totality and yet, there’s been no meaningful input from First Nations and that work still needs to be done,” Higgins says. She adds that the current focus on managing forests for timber rather than ecosystem resilience and biodiversity needs to change.

Higgins says none of the three parties has committed to implementing the First Nations Forest Strategy. When The Tyee reached out to the BC NDP, it said that, if re-elected, it is “confident those discussions will continue.”

Liberal candidate Rustad says that addressing Indigenous land title is one way to create certainty and attract investment in B.C.’s forests. He says his party would also introduce legislation to clarify which forests were open to logging and which were preserved for conservation.

“We need to have designated area for forestry,” he says. “At the end of the day, when you look at forestry, forestry is the most sustainable, most renewable, and the most environmentally-friendly activity we can look for, when you look at the products that are produced.”

He says some raw log exports are needed to support a healthy forestry industry. “At the end of the day, you can’t have value-added if you don’t have a core industry, because you have to have something to add value to,” he says.

Quesnel Mayor Simpson says doing business the same old way won’t fix an industry riddled with problems and calls for a value-over-volume approach to forestry.

“The idea that tax relief is going to solve all of our problems — I mean, for crying out loud, surely we can get beyond that nonsense,” he says. “Our issues are so much deeper than that. We’ve got a blown-out land base. We have a reduction in [annual allowable cuts] that is so dramatic. We have no real forest health strategy.”

He says Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson is out of touch with what is happening in forestry communities.

“He’s mentioned forestry a fair bit, but he’s never actually talked — to my knowledge — to any of the mayors who are in the throes of the transition in the forest sector,” he says. “How do you formulate policy without talking to the actual people who are going to be living with the consequences of it?”

When it comes to financing a forestry transition, the Liberals have criticized the NDP’s decision to divert the BC Rural Dividend fund into financial assistance for communities affected by the downturn. Rustad says a Liberal government would allocate funds for both.

“Instead of doing what the NDP have done, which was to rob Peter to pay Paul, the support for the forest sector that needs it should have the new money and the rural dividend, which also is critical for those communities that are being impacted,” he says.

The NDP says it provided nearly $14 million in grants for over 150 projects to support people in rural communities in June, including First Nations, local governments and not-for-profit organizations, in addition to $69 million in funding to support workers, contractors and communities in the Interior.

It adds that its economic recovery plan includes over $49 million to support job creation opportunities and rural economic development, including in the forestry sector.

Simpson says the name given to funding for rural and forestry-dependent communities is less important than ensuring communities are supported.

“The real question is, are we getting the kinds of resources that we need in our communities to drive our transition strategy and to make sure our communities can get through this transition?” he says. “The fact that it’s not called a rural dividend fund really doesn’t matter. It’s whether or not we still have access to the resources that we need.”

Missing from all party platforms, Simpson says, is a roadmap showing how they would get from a historical focus on raw logs to less conventional uses of wood fibre — the production of things like PPE out of biomass rather than petrochemicals.

With an industry in “survival mode,” he says those major shifts need to be driven by government.

“All the parties are really missing the fundamental role that government can play in creating that alternate vision, and then incenting and regulating to achieve that alternate vision,” he says. “They’re all pretty weak on the fundamental nature of the shift that needs to be made.”  [Tyee]

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