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Corky Evans on Making the Woods Work

Markets are good, logging can be honourable, and the left must lay claim to the language of the right to achieve its goals.

Don Gayton 12 May
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Evans: The debate has to evolve

Forestry and resource management -- trees and water -- are highly political issues in B.C. But politics is never stagnant. People, ideas, and political landscapes are as changeable and dynamic as a mountain stream. Corky Evans, Slocan Valley resident and former NDP agriculture minister, leadership candidate, and MLA for Nelson-Creston, is running to reclaim his seat from the Liberals in the provincial election. Evans, a former logger, has seen more than his share of forestry disputes in the riding. Those disputes illuminate some fundamental issues that affect our political and social landscape, as he shared with me in this conversation.

Corky, I think it's fair to call you a "Jeffersonian," in that you champion woodlots, small farms, and rural industries. But the bottom line is that corporate concentration in the forestry sector increased under the previous NDP administration - your party's administration - just like it's increasing under the current Liberal government. The woodlot, small business and community forest sector controls just a tiny fraction of the overall timber harvest. Is Thomas Jefferson's ideal of the vibrant "rural smallholder" economy now just a bad joke in B.C.?

Sure, a Jeffersonian is a fair analysis of who I am. Maybe throw in Rousseau, and Thomas Paine, too. But keep in mind that those are just the historical white guys that it's now vogue to forget. The bottom line is, land in the hands of a person rooted on the land, or a community, or even a company, is a thousand times better than land in the hands of footloose capital.

In the West Kootenays, we're very different than the rest of B.C. We have, in the main, avoided the consolidation disease that has destroyed the market for wood and the affinity for the land that has occurred in almost every other Timber Supply Area in the province. In the '90s, we created more and different forms of tenure here than just about anybody else. Actually, I would like to see the forest industry operate like the dairy industry, where it is against the rules for a person who milks cows to also be the person who processes the milk. The vertical integration and monopoly systems -- that have destroyed so much of the creativity and enterprise in the forest industry -- is simply not allowed in B.C.'s agriculture sector.

Am I a dreamer? Maybe. But the Creston, Kaslo, Harrop and Revelstoke community forest tenures are proof that change is possible. So is the expansion of woodlots in the last 10 years.

The logging and watershed struggles in the Slocan Valley and elsewhere have been very intense, to say the least. Do you see that debate changing at all? Has your position changed in your time out of office?

We have had a "struggle" over watersheds and logging, and we are just starting to have a "debate." I am glad that we are evolving to the place that we can, at least most of the time, debate the subject instead of struggling against one another.

I have an obvious bias that needs to be expressed up front. I like logging. More than that, I like people who work on the land or on the water a lot. I like farmers and ranchers and fishers and guides. I am most comfortable with an economy that is land-based. I am uncomfortable when the place we live is a just a backdrop for our lives instead of the source of it.

I think a lot of us flinch when we hear the word "logging."

To me, good logging is like good farming; it is a high class of labour that borders on art. Done badly, it is theft from future generations and a dishonouring of the craft and the land. When people remove the bounty of the earth without ensuring the capacity of the land to produce the next harvest, that isn't logging. That is called mining...

In the 1980s, the NDP held meetings with Nelson and Creston folks that changed public policy everywhere in the province. In Nelson we determined that the first steps to sustainability in forestry were to make a code for forest practices, to make a freedom of information law (so people could find out what was happening around them) and to rehabilitate land that had been degraded by poor forestry practices. In Creston the party decided to try to comply with the United Nations request that 12 percent of land be set aside as wilderness. These ideas went on to become party policy, then platform and then mandate. In the 1990s, all of these things happened.

Once the rules around where we would log and how we would log were established, and the provincial parks system doubled in size, citizens woke up to the fact that whatever wasn't a park would be entrenched in the provincial forest and remain available for logging. People who had not understood that the land around them had always been assigned to logging were surprised and unhappy. People who wanted more than 12 percent of the land base to be consigned to wilderness were also upset. This set the stage for years of rancour and division over the front-country land that people saw as "watersheds."

So do you think the logging and watershed debate is over?

I think we're in a period of transition. Community forests have been shown to work. Woodlots have been shown to work. Industrial logging has evolved away from ground skidding to more skyline systems, smaller blocks, and more detailed planning for the full set of forest resources. Citizens are becoming more interested in "how" something will happen than "if" it will happen.

I hope the debate about how to manage watersheds continues to evolve, and leads us to methods of logging that are more benign. I hope that loggers and conservationists come to understand that doing careful -- and even delicate -- work on the land can lead to both increased employment and increased protection. We all have an interest in excellence. Cheap or careless logging degrades both land and the profession of logging. People who want to do careless work should get out of the business of working on the land.

The Liberal government has set us back a decade by encouraging companies to work to the lowest common denominator. They have manipulated the code, made access to information difficult, laid off the government workers charged with managing the land, and encouraged consolidation in the industry. The only possible way to turn this around is for conservationists and woodworkers alike to aim for a common objective of excellence…

The Green Party and the NDP fight over some of the same voters, and in the Slocan Valley, as in other parts of B.C., that fight has been particularly intense. What are your current thoughts on the Green-NDP conflict?

It is true that the NDP and the Green Party cross-pressure some of the same voters. It is also true that under B.C.'s present system, it is impossible for progressive people to govern, if they split their vote...

I am hoping that voters in B.C. will choose to experiment with the STV option (Single Transferable Vote) on the ballot in May. This change in how votes are counted would allow citizens much more flexibility in how they cast their ballots and would encourage coalitions in the Legislature instead of in the election.

Provincially, I think citizens believe they have four options:

1. Don't vote and therefore not be held personally responsible for the actions of any government.

2. Vote Green and, therefore, articulate a position against many forms of economic growth while assuring they themselves will not be held personally responsible for the actions of any government.

3. Vote Liberal and, essentially, articulate an "economic growth at any cost" option.

4. Vote New Democrat and choose a "conservation and jobs" objective that is difficult to articulate and even more difficult to achieve.

I think that voters here will choose option 4 in this election because they have experienced option 3 and found it too devastating to be allowed to continue unabated. I don't think that option 1 will go away soon. Option 2 would be viable if we change the way we vote. With STV, it would not matter if progressive voters split their vote, we could make a coalition in the Legislature.

Why would the parties be able to form a coalition in the Legislature if they can't do it in an election?

Lots of reasons. In the Legislature, temporary coalitions can develop around single issues, where different parties find a common interest. And you can debate the issue thoughtfully, without all the hype and media attention. To form a coalition in an election, you would have to mesh entire party platforms. That's nearly impossible.

I hear you use the term "social democrat" a lot. What does that mean in the context of today?

The job of social democrats in this century will be to find a way to articulate and deliver a healthy economic standard while ensuring sustainability of the land and air and water and the critters that live here. The enormity of this challenge was not understood when our party developed the Regina Manifesto as the CCF, nor even when the CCF became the NDP. Our antecedents took on the challenges of dealing with depression and capitalism and world war. It is for our generation to take on the challenge of sustainability.

It seems to me that a political party that could combine support for business, progressive social values, cost-effective governance, together with strong support for the environment, could win this province in a landslide. Why do you think no party has adopted that formula?

My guess is that you could find language supporting those objectives in the principles and platforms of all parties. The problem of politics in our time is not articulating a position, but being believed. Cynicism is often confused with intelligence, especially in the media and in academia. Perhaps this is because politicians and parties have failed to deliver on their platform messages. Perhaps it is because television has taught us to market ideas like we market cars and to demean complex messages in favour of facile "images."

There is a more optimistic answer, though, to your question. Perhaps voters are really highly intelligent beings who know, both intellectually and in their hearts, that to aim for all the objectives you describe, at once, is profoundly difficult and most likely to fail. Thus, voters choose to support parties that give voice to a clear bias in favour of one single option or another, so that they know what objective is primary in the mind of that party when hard choices need to be made.

Mike Harcourt was the best premier in recent years at achieving balance in decision making. He was pilloried in the press for weakness and indecision. Only after Mike resigned did the public realize their appreciation of the man and his wisdom and his attempt to find an accord between the needs of business, citizens, and the environment. The lesson, however, that political parties took from Mike Harcourt's fall from grace is that popular culture, and certainly the popular press, do not like compromise and collectivity in decision making. This is hugely unfortunate. Perhaps it will be reversed by Carole James' attempt to rejuvenate the image of a balanced approach to political process.

The NDP has never been seen as the party of "the marketplace," and yet it seems to me that "the market" is essential to the diversified rural economy you propose. Care to comment?

I think that "the left" has abdicated responsibility for understanding markets. Worse, I think we have allowed the language of the marketplace to be stolen by conservative elements in society who hate real markets and, thus, nobody advocates for the healthy exchange of goods and services.

In the last half of the last century we didn't have to worry too much about making jobs. North America experienced growth, especially industrial growth, because of cheap energy supplies, good quality trained labour, and expanding markets. The left began to think that our job was extracting from industry a fair share of the profit earned by employers. It was the employer's job to sell their product. It was our job to see to it that the product was made in a fair manner, wages were negotiated, environmental standards were set and observed and taxes paid. For decades we ignored the language and understanding of "the market."

Then globalism arrived and progressive Canadian workers found themselves wearing running shoes made by child labour. The contradiction was huge but we ignored the implications of this massive shift in wealth because nobody really knew what to do with a world that we could no longer control with democratic principles or laws or regulations.

Citizens accepted the terms of the new world order because "the left" could not argue against it in valid economic terms. We made moral arguments only. I think this situation has to change, now.

My opinion is that it is progressive people who have an interest in the healthy operation of "the marketplace" and it is "the right," or corporate forces, that despise "free enterprise" and the regulatory regimes required to keep them functioning.

To me, it is the corporate world that hates "free enterprise." It is Wal-Mart, not the New Democrats, which threatens the existence of small business. It is Cominco, not New Democrats, which buys up mining claims just to shut them down and control the supply of metals in the world.

I think social democrats should become the advocates for the free market and begin to have a conversation about how to control monopolies. I do not like monopolies in the business of making boards or cars or selling food or goods. We have been afraid of this conversation because we all know that some services, like utilities or health care or car insurance, are better run as state monopolies for the good of society. We are afraid to draw a distinction between those monopolies that we own and need to own for the good of society, and those that oppress us and citizens the world over.

We seem to be veering away from forestry into a discussion of economics.

You can't separate the two. Where I live it used to require 600 workers to produce fewer boards than 200 workers produce now. What will the remaining 400 families do for a living unless we create and nurture and sustain new markets for new products or services in our communities? And how will we do that unless we can say, out loud, that markets are good for making jobs and jobs are good for people? I don't think that corporations have made a single job in the Kootenays in my lifetime. All the new jobs -- the ones that are not created by shutting down somebody else's work -- are made by small business and the non-profit sector and cooperatives...

The NAFTA has failed us. So has the Free Trade Agreement. British Columbians have $4 billion right now trapped at the US border as a duty on wood that rural workers produced, in spite of international agreements that say such activities are illegal. Monopoly capitalism is not engaged in making markets work; it is engaged in perverting markets to make a few people rich while enslaving millions. We on "the left" cannot deal with these issues unless we recapture the language of the marketplace and engage in discussions about how to support economic activity that is healthy for all people.

We are not short of good ideas, we are short of ways to make the good ideas work. And it is social democrats who have an interest in taking up the challenge of unleashing the creativity of the citizenry to create good, sustainable rural work.

Don Gayton lives in Nelson and is the author of three books, Kokanee, Landscapes of the Interior, and The Wheatgrass Mechanism.  [Tyee]

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