Fletcher: Forest jobs won’t wait for 2013

Sawmill tragedies in Prince George and Burns Lake have brought overdue attention to a larger crisis.

Sawmill tragedies in Prince George and Burns Lake have brought overdue attention to the larger crisis, as the end of B.C.’s latest pine beetle infestation continues to transform the Interior forest industry.

The urgency of the timber supply situation was set out in a couple of high-level documents that were leaked from the forests ministry in recent days. These leaks show several things, one of which is that this is a government in trouble. Someone on the inside forced the unpopular options into the public arena.

Cabinet ministers have tried to dismiss the documents as early drafts, but no one has disputed their numbers.

A report on mid-term timber supply looks at the four most beetle-affected areas: Prince George, Lakes (west of Prince George around Burns Lake), Quesnel and Williams Lake. In recent years B.C.’s chief forester has increased the annual allowable cut of all these timber supply areas substantially to harvest dead trees.

In Lakes, the pre-beetle annual allowable cut was 1.5 million cubic metres. Currently it is up to two million, but once the beetle wood is unusable, it drops to 500,000. Even if visual quality rules are relaxed to release more timber, forest employment in the area would go from 1,572 jobs before the beetle epidemic to 521.

Prince George’s much larger harvest total is expected to drop by almost half. And around Quesnel, producers say an economic supply of dead pine will be there for only another year and a half.

This document and a subsequent proposal to cabinet set out the options. They include relaxing visual quality areas, old-growth management zones and wildlife connectivity corridors.

This is not as drastic as it sounds, given that the first areas to be opened up would be those where many of the trees are already dead.

Most beetle-affected areas have a substantial proportion of live trees. If decade-old dead trees were subsidized for biofuel use, this would support harvest and hauling of healthy sawlogs along with them.

The government is also considering swapping some existing cutting licences to increase wood supply for the Lakes district, to provide enough long-term supply for reconstruction of the destroyed Burns Lake sawmill. There is also the prospect of awarding unassigned timber to “a single representative of the six First Nations in the Lakes TSA.”

Speaking to forest scientists who work in B.C., a couple of things become clear. This pine beetle epidemic may be the largest on record, but it is far from the first. And despite many assertions by former premier Gordon Campbell, it is not certain if this one is the result of a broader climate trend or just a string of warmer winters after decades of fire suppression kept older stands around.

Lodgepole pine forests are fire-propagated. The term “old growth” has little meaning in a cycle of natural fires that doesn’t occur in wetter zones.

But none of this will matter much in the urban political debate that is about to ensue. “Old growth” is now a quasi-religious notion. International environmental groups have convinced most people that logging is the primary cause of forest loss.

In fact, the UN’s “State of the World’s Forests” reports have shown that 95 per cent of global forest loss is due to agriculture. Forest cover is increasing in industrialized countries, which use farmland more efficiently.

The B.C. Liberal government needs to make some tough decisions quickly, before next year’s election. The premier’s vow to “create and defend” jobs is about to be tested like never before.