Opinion

Forest giveaway simply bad policy

A government plan to introduce a scant two-paragraph bill granting it powers to fundamentally alter the course of forestry in B.C. is disturbing to say the least.

According to several sources who have been briefed on the legislation, the bill would give the provincial cabinet powers to grant forest companies de facto private control over public forestlands without first having to notify or consult with the public. Instead of companies enjoying rights to log set volumes of trees on public forestlands, companies would gain dramatically expanded powers to log trees on defined areas that in effect become their own semi-private fiefdoms.

If the new legislation passes, the provincial cabinet could grant forest companies the rights to roll over numerous volume-based forest licences into area-based Tree Farm Licences. TFLs bestow by far the most secure rights of access to publicly owned trees of any arrangement with the provincial government. The new legislation could massively expand their use.

TFL lands still remain publicly owned and the government still collects timber-cutting or stumpage fees from the companies logging them. But once a TFL is granted, a company has something that is very difficult for the province to take back without triggering prohibitively expensive payouts.

Worse, TFLs become tradable or sellable assets. If the right corporate suitor comes along, say a pension fund that has zero interest in maintaining sawmills let alone building desperately-needed value-added facilities like furniture plants, so be it.

Forest company executives routinely trot out the trope that TFLs provide them the security they need to invest in renewing forests. But such claims are not credible. Companies have historically made the minimal reforestation investments required by law regardless of the licensing arrangement with the government.

The “security” argument is a smokescreen, then, designed to draw attention away from the real reason companies covet TFLs — their asset value.

The government opens the door to a rapid escalation in corporate control of public forestlands.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of such a fundamental change on the eve of a provincial election is the government leaves unaddressed the most evident problems.

Our forests face the gravest health crisis in modern history. Communities that have for decades depended on our forests for their social and economic well-being face equally daunting challenges.

Yet, there is a way out. Policies that would end rampant wood waste, policies that would earmark certain forested areas as available to log in exchange for company commitments to make minimal investments in new or modernized mills, policies that would result in greater, more effective reforestation efforts, are all within our grasp.

In their absence, giving what remains of our forests away is lunacy. A responsible government would delay implementing such contentious legislation and give the public time to digest just what the implications of such a move are.

Or the Opposition could signal now that should such a bill pass it would be immediately repealed upon a change in government.

Ben Parfitt is resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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