Several weeks ago, Wendy Fraser wrote a strong editorial deploring the mismanagement of forests by the Liberal government. Let me add a few observations to her statement.
This year the forest ministry is celebrating its hundredth anniversary of service. The Forest Act of 1912 was created in order to enshrine legislation against “destructive lumbering.”
Since 1978, the Forest Service’s mission statement stressed integrated management of forest values: “To manage, conserve their sustainable use for the economic, cultural, physical and spiritual well-being of British Columbians, who hold those same resources in trust for future generations. In respecting and caring for public forest and range lands, the ministry is guided by the ethics of stewardship and public service.”
This claim, idealistic to the point of naïveté, was regularly contradicted by a clear-cutting mentality on the ground, but at least it gave the appearance of serving the best interests of the public.
A recent internal Ministry of Forests and Range document (2010), “Response to the Changing Business Environment,” strikes a very different pose. The new mission is “to provide a superior service to resource stakeholders by supporting competitive business conditions” and gives priority to “enhancing industry competitiveness” and “identifying clear outcomes for investors.”
An earlier memo from Jim Gowriluk, “Advocating for the Forest Industry in the Coast Forest Region,” clarifies the new mandate as “fulfilling our role as advocates for the forest industry.”
So then, even if the Ministry of Forests and Lands were not rendered incompetent by reductions in budget and staff, they could not carry out a program of sustainable management.
During their term in office, the Liberal government has steadily moved in the direction of placing our bounteous commons in the hands of “lumbering” companies, a strategy, along with de-regulation, towards the ultimate goal of privatization. The tendency is slow, incremental, and such as to avoid arousing public outcry. But the privatization of BC’s public assets is the industrial corporate ideal.
Tenure reform has therefore been a top priority of logging companies. And it must be noted that among logging companies stripping BC forests, the big players are not so much “Canadian” as billion-dollar investor groups. For example, Martin J. Whitman, founder of Third Avenue Management (TAM), runs an investment empire out of New York. A few of its minor assets have included Western Forest Products, Timberwest, and Island Timberlands in association with another roving predator of “distressed companies” called Brookfield Asset Management.
Dr. Briony Penn, adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, estimates that “fully one quarter of BC’s public harvesting rights – over 10 million cubic metres of Crown forest – are now under TAM’s controlling interest through their acquisition of huge chunks of BC’s biggest forest and pulp companies, including Canfor and Catalyst.” This information was unearthed in 2010 and may have changed somewhat because corporate investment keeps shifting around. But you get the point: Foreign investors with no stake at all in the health of our forests are gaining control of our forestlands.
And as Dr. Penn points out, the typical strategy of these giant investment groups is to buy up failing companies with cutting rights, “close down facilities, consolidate, liquidate assets, avoid taxes (as happened in Crofton), try and exert influence on the political system, wait out the process of privatization and then sell.” For such investors, you may be sure that the notion of forest “stewardship” never enters their minds.
Meanwhile, and aside from “liquidation,” BC forests are in decline due to climate change, wildfire and disease. The mountain pine beetle alone has damaged 15 million hectares, and recent wildfires burned over a million hectares.
Anthony Britneff, a former senior forester, has estimated that in the aftermath of these events, non-replanted Crown land could total some nine million hectares, of which two million would be feasible and economic to plant.
But here’s another rub. The provincial government in 2002 removed the legal obligation for the Crown to replant areas denuded by natural disturbances. They also removed the statutory requirement to conduct and maintain a forest inventory!
Due to declining forest revenue, industrial think-tanks have invented a narrowly-focused plan to turn enormous tracts of productive forest acreage into biofuel plantations, preferably rich bottom lands where poplars are likely to thrive, for making into pellets. While the idea sounds green, it would actually increase carbon emissions and aggravate climate change.
Then there is the vision of supplying China with lumber, persuading them to build houses from wood. China has a billion people. Can you imagine the hillsides around Lillooet furnishing China with building materials?
It gives me no pleasure to point out these policy developments, for we all love our imperiled BC Paradise. My only hope is that Bad News will alert us to stand up and take back what is rightfully ours: a government “guided by the ethics of stewardship and public service.”
For a detailed account, see the net’s Focusonline.ca: “The Big Burn” and “Wham BAM, thank you TAM,” by Dr. Briony Penny. Also “The Latest Crisis in BC Forests,” by Jim Cooperman, soon to appear in the Watershed Sentinel.