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Six Steps to a Healthier Timber Future for BC

What to do about beetle wood, the Burns Lake mill, climate change and the bioeconomy. MLA Simpson weighs in.

Bob Simpson 20 Jul 2012TheTyee.ca

Bob Simpson is Independent MLA for Cariboo North.

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'Don't start a war in the woods': Independent MLA Bob Simpson, Cariboo North.

[Editor's note:  The Special Committee on Timber Supply was appointed by the Legislative Assembly on May 16, 2012 to examine and make recommendations to address the loss of mid-term timber supply in the central interior due to the pine beetle. Public hearings wrapped up July 12 but the committee is accepting submissions from the public ending today, July 20. Published here is the written submission made yesterday by Independent MLA Bob Simpson, Cariboo North, slightly edited.]

You can't manage what you don’t measure

In 1913, B.C.'s first chief forester, H.R. MacMillan, stated:

"In every country in which the practice of forestry by the Government has been established successfully, it has been found that a comprehensive knowledge of the quality, condition, and extent of the forest resources in the country concerned is the prime requisite of their efficient administration."

Before answering the Committee's primary question about how we might increase timber supply, we must have confidence that we have the "comprehensive knowledge" of our public forests that is essential to the efficient management of B.C.'s largest public resource.

While FLNRO senior staff advised the Committee during its technical briefings that they had sufficient inventory data to make strategic decisions (such as AAC determinations, and where to invest in B.C.'s public forests), it's clear from the Committee's hearings that this view is not shared by industry, professional associations and their individual members, and the general public. Virtually every presenter to the Committee who spoke to this issue echoed the concerns expressed by the Association of BC Forest Professionals, the Forest Practices Board, and the BC Auditor General about the sorry state of B.C.'s forest inventory.

Recommendation 1: That the Committee advises government about the widespread lack of confidence that exists in the state of B.C.'s forest inventory and recommend that the critique provided by the ABCFP, FPB, the Auditor General, and presenters to the Committee be turned into a work plan to address knowledge gaps and obtain the additional data needed to manage B.C.'s forests into the future.

No, you can't start a 'war in the woods'

The clear answer to the Committee's primary question about whether we should increase timber supply in the short- to mid-term by relaxing constraints or encroaching on areas that have non-timber land use designations is a resounding "no."

Economically, the Committee was informed by industry that such a move could start a new war in the woods that would threaten B.C.'s reputation as a sustainable forest manager while putting individual companies' third party certification at risk. The loss of B.C.'s reputation and third party certification could have a more devastating impact on the industry and forestry jobs than any reduction in timber supply in the short- to mid-term.

Ecologically, the Committee was presented with a clear message that, in a world of climate change, the non-timber values protected in the land use plans have even more importance now than when they were first established. We must do more to protect biodiversity, not less; riparian zones are more critical now than ever, because they are needed to keep water temperatures down; and old growth management areas and so-called low productivity forests (i.e., forests with fewer sawlog species but more tree species diversity) are critical for ecological adaptation to a changing climate.

Socially, organizations such as the BC Wildlife Federation and the Outdoor Recreation Council made it clear that many British Columbians place a high value on our forest resources for recreation and other social purposes that also generate economic benefits beyond timber extraction.

Recommendation 2: That the Committee advises government that there is no social license to open up land use plans or encroach on non-timber reserves to achieve any increase in timber supply in the short- to mid-term.

Let's have the conversation

The Committee also asked whether there was an appetite to embark on a transition to more area-based tenures. The answer from the hearings to this important question is unclear, as some presenters supported the notion while others expressed strong reservations about going down this path.

I am a strong supporter for more area-based tenures and have been for some time. I believe area-based tenures are the best way for communities to become vested in their land base. They are an excellent tool to ensure we maintain the most intimate knowledge of our public forests, attract long-term investment, and maximize returns from all the values and opportunities our forests provide.

However, as the Committee hearings demonstrated, there is currently no consensus on the value of switching to more area-based tenures. Therefore, the government should hold discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of increased area-based management of our public forests.

Recommendation 3: That the Committee advises government to immediately undertake a longer, more informed conversation with British Columbians about the evolution of our tenure system.

The elephant in the room

As the Committee was completing its technical briefings and commencing its public hearings, two other events unfolded that had a direct bearing on the Committee's mandate; however, they were not given due consideration by the Committee. Both events involve the critical issue of climate change and its serious implications for the future management of B.C.'s forests.

The first event was the tabling and discussion of the Auditor General's report on B.C.'s forest management at a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee on June 11. Responding to the Auditor General's report, the Deputy Minister for FLNRO made the following statement:

"When you look forward into the future, we believe there will be more and more significant, unexpected disruptions. You look at the economy today and the diversity of the markets -- what's happening in the marketplaces. You look at climate change. You look at mountain pine beetle, as an example of that. We think the primary focus has to be about building resilience into our forests and our forest management regime. With that resilience, of course, timber would be a component of it, a necessary component.

"So what I look forward to is discussions with the Auditor General's staff around: how do we develop targets within that very dynamic framework? I would absolutely argue that trying to specify a long-term timber supply target and have people believe that you can with certainty deliver a 20- or 50-year long-term timber supply target is highly dangerous. There are far too many things going on right now in the system to allow that." (Emphasis added.)

Unfortunately, this serious caveat by FLNRO's most senior civil servant about climate change's potential impact on timber supply was never brought into the Committee's technical briefings or discussed by the Committee members during the public hearings. Instead, graphs and charts were provided showing future timber supply numbers down to the 100,000 cubic metres, as though there would not be "more and more significant, unexpected disruptions" to B.C.'s public forest ecosystems.

The second event happened the same week as the discussion at Public Accounts: the Future Forest Ecosystems Scientific Council (FFESC) held its final meeting and tabled its synthesis report. The Committee heard from one of the authors of this report during its public meeting in Smithers.

In the FFESC's report, a rhetorical question is posed about the work of the Timber Supply Committee:

"The mid-term timber supply crisis in B.C. central interior provides a particularly poignant example [of the tension between top-down and community-based decision-making]. Climate change adaptation strategies were developed in the Nadina Forest District with the collaboration of forest management stakeholders, just shortly before the Babine Forest Products mill was destroyed in an explosion and fire in Jan. 2012. The District has experienced an extremely high level of MPB salvage harvest over the past 10 years and was entering a period of timber supply falldown and ecosystem recovery.  The climate change adaptation strategy outlines a variety of operational measures to sustain ecosystem services (timber supply, biodiversity, hydrology). Almost all of these measures conflict directly with the desire rebuild a new mill because the mill owner requires a higher level of cut than allowed under the AAC to make a new mill viable. As the consultation process unfolds it will be very instructive to observe how top-down political and local pressures to restore resource revenues and employment will play out against legislative, professional and local obligations to protect long term sustainability. How much of the discussion will be framed in the context of climate change?" (Emphasis added.)

Unfortunately, based on the transcripts of the Committee's hearings, the answer to the question, "How much of the discussion will be framed in the context of climate change," is: "Very little."

Because of the dramatic impact climate change is having on our forests, it is conceivable that the "greened up" forest the Committee saw firsthand on its tour of the Quesnel TSA will simply be a banquet for the mountain pine beetle to eat its way through in as early as 35-40 years. This scenario may well come to pass if the Committee recommends that government invest in "intensive forest management" and, as result, the regenerated lodgepole pine stands achieve a more robust girth at an earlier age. This kind of "significant, unexpected disturbance" is, according to the science captured in the work of the FFESC, a more likely scenario than the ones the Committee was presented with by FLNRO staff and that the Committee presented to the public. In short, it is more than likely that the mid-term and long-term timber supply is at risk of being decimated by another massive disease or pest outbreak in the very near future.

The Committee heard from FLNRO staff that the return on investment of an incremental silviculture program is simply not sufficient to warrant such a program. This advice relates to increasing timber supply. However, the FFESC's work clearly indicates there is an immediate need for a massive investment in B.C.'s public forests in order to ensure they can adapt as rapidly as possible to climate change. This kind of strategic investment is essential to the long-term sustainability of our forests, the forest industry, and forest-dependent communities.

Recommendation 4: That the Committee advises government to act on the recommendations of the FFESC and develop a program to significantly invest in climate change related mitigation and adaptation strategies to ensure the long-term health of our forest ecosystems.

Remove the status quo and unleash the community's creative powers

While the Committee did not obtain the social license to advise government to increase timber supply at the expense of B.C.'s land use plans and non-timber values, the community of Burns Lake made it clear that they want their mill rebuilt. Unfortunately, the presentations heard in other regions demonstrate that the Babine Forest Products mill cannot be rebuilt without creating a cascade of negative impacts for these communities.

In my experience, people never become as fully creative as they can be as long as the status quo is available as a possible solution to a serious problem. I believe the Committee will do Burns Lake a favour by saying no to the request to cobble together a timber supply that would justify Hampton Affiliates rebuilding a mill in Burns Lake, a mill that will likely employ fewer workers because new technology will displace a significant amount of labour. Some of the work necessary to diversify the economy of Burns Lake has already begun, and more should be done to encourage creative solutions and investment in the region.

Recommendation 5: That the Committee advises government that it should not take the extreme measures necessary to rebuild the Hampton Mill. Instead, it should provide resources to the community of Burns Lake and actively assist the community in transitioning to an alternate economy.

We need a champion

There is an alternate forest economy available to us that the Committee's mandate did not allow it to explore. B.C. has ample opportunities to diversify its forest economy through greater utilization of its hardwoods and by truly seizing the opportunities afforded to us in the emerging bioeconomy. What is lacking is a champion within government. We need someone to champion the bioeconomy, much like Ray Williston and Minister Bell championed the establishment of the Interior pulp industry and the Chinese market, respectively.

Rather than go to extremes to try to maintain our traditional forest industry, the government’s energy would be better spent and the people of B.C. better served if the new forest economy had a true champion to make B.C. a world leader in the bioeconomy.

Recommendation 6: That the Committee advises government it must immediately act on the recommendations of the Bioeconomy Committee and embark on a strategy to fully utilize B.C.'s hardwood resources.  [Tyee]

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