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Logging rights consultation fails to ask the big questions

May 19, 2014

The provincial government’s current “Area Based Forest Tenure Consultation”, which ends on May 30, 2014 is about large-scale logging interests and how much control they should have over BC’s forests. It fails to ask the big questions: Who should be managing BC’s forests and for what purpose? How can we address decades of unsustainable overcutting? Instead, the consultation looks at further entrenching corporate control.

There’s just over a week left to tell the BC government what you think

What is the consultation about?

The government consultation website says that the government’s proposal is about shifting from “volume-based” logging rights to “area-based” logging rights. In other words, making a shift from licences that give the holder the right to harvest a certain volume of wood to licences that give the holder management control and near-exclusive harvesting rights over a specific area of land. Both “volume-based” and “area-based” licences are sometimes referred to as forest “tenures”.

But although the government’s consultation website talks a lot about area-based tenure, the real focus of what the government is proposing is somewhat narrower. The provincial government’s discussion paper states:

[T]he Province is looking at options to convert some or a portion of some volume-based forest licences to new or expanded area-based tree farm licences (on a case-by-case basis), in areas where it makes sense to do so and in areas where there would be benefits for workers and communities by mitigating mid-term timber supply issues.

Look more closely, however, and one learns that the process proposed is by invitation only, only in beetle impacted areas, and only open to existing tenure holders (which by volume are disproportionately large integrated forest products companies).

Furthermore, the only new or expanded area-based tenures on the table are tree farm licences.Tree farm licences (originally known as forest management licences) were designed as a forest policy tool in the 1940s to give exclusive logging rights over vast areas to big companies at a time when demands on our forests were very different. Unlike newer forms of area-based tenure like community forest agreements or First Nations woodland licences, tree farm licences are exclusively timber focused and designed for corporate rather than local control of forest lands. 

And what of the drivers for this proposed change? The discussion paper notes, “the mountain pine beetle infestation has resulted in forest licence holders competing for the best remaining operating areas." This can’t help but bring to mind a final “clash of the titans” as large timber companies attempt to lock down their corporate logging rights over our forests. But at what cost?

At a time when overharvesting and the impacts of climate change are reducing timber supply, particularly in beetle-impacted areas, is the answer really to give a small group of hand-picked companies more control over our forests?

There are, in fact, strong arguments that corporate control of our forests and the tenure system that enables it, are a root cause of the problem, not the solution.

The provincial government proposal is based on outdated forest policy assumptions

At its core, the provincial discussion paper echoes the policy arguments of the 1940s and 1950s that gave rise to the key elements of today’s timber tenure system: “Bigger is better (i.e., preference in tenure allocation should be to large integrated forest products companies)”, “secure timber supply equals community stability”, and “big companies will do the best job of forest management." Take this quote from a 1957 Royal Commission Report, in which  Commissioner Gordon Sloan opined that:

An assured continuity of supply of raw material results in the construction, maintenance, and uninterrupted operation of costly integrated conversion plants, ensuring the highest utilization return for the logs cut with attendant competitive advantages in world markets. This in turn should result in a maximum continuity of employment in all phases of the industry—logging, transportation, and conversion into the end product.

Continuity of employment has, as its sequel stable, settled, and prosperous communities . . . .The forest management licence [later, tree farm licence] system was devised as a vehicle of policy to effectuate this concept of sustained yield with all these and other consequential benefits. (at p. 43)

Yet there is an extensive literature, now going back decades, debunking these now out-dated assumptions based on BC’s actual experienceand making the case that concentrated control over timber rights by a small group of large companies has undermined environmental sustainability, economic diversity and self-determination (a summary of some of these papers can be found in this West Coast paper on tenure reform).

One doesn’t need to be a forester or a lawyer though to see the issues with the status quo. Indeed, if these assumptions were true – why are we cutting more today than ever before, yet employing fewer people? Why do we have a crisis of biodiversity in our forests and elsewhere in BC? It now seems naïve to think that simply providing a supply of raw material to big companies would buffer BC from boom and bust cycles in the industry, or that companies would do the right thing by the environment or communities if it wasn’t in their economic interests to do so.

In fact, concern that large corporate tenure holders were placing the interests of local employees, communities and sustainability, “a distant second to the extraction of short term profits from the early liquidation of old growth forests” was a strong theme from the public hearings that scuttled an earlier (unsuccessful) provincial effort in the late 1980’s to roll-over volume-based forest licences to area-based tree farm licences (sound familiar?).

The conversation that BC needs to have is why public and Indigenous lands are still predominantly managed by large corporate interests in BC – not by First Nations, communities, small scale operators etc. And yet this consultation is not about creating new area-based tenures for First Nations or communities – it is focused principally on creating new tree farm licences – typically the largest of the area-based tenure operations, and one that is designed for large forest companies. 

The government suggests that it is responding to the recommendations of the Special Committee on Timber Supply, which specifically recommended looking at options to shift control of BC’s forests away from corporate control:

If conversion to more area-based tenures is desirable, give consideration to incorporating a take back-volume provision, or some equivalent public benefit, on conversion to area-based rights and reallocating that volume to First Nation and/or community area-based tenures.

However, even this approach risks continuing to leave First Nations and communities on the margins of the tenure system.

The reality is that the pressure for new corporate tree farm licences is being driven by overcutting of forests in the interior of BC – in areas that were impacted by the Mountain Pine Beetle. New tree farm licences are an over-simplistic solution that does nothing to address the history of unsustainable logging, the lack of community control and the many other complicated problems that have resulted in mismanagement and environmental degradation. 

That’s why we joined many other environmental organizations in calling for a broader process:

The environmental organizations are calling on the government to develop a comprehensive plan addressing the declining state of B.C.’s forests and forest management carried by a broad vision for a more diverse and resilient future for provincial forest lands. 

A coherent action plan should address a lack of government oversight and enforcement, continuing mill closures and job losses, unsustainable rates of logging, native and non-native community control over forests, insufficient protection for critical species habitat, raw log exports, regional monopolies, shortfalls in reforestation, lack of inventory and research as a result of cutbacks, massive forest carbon emissions and climate impacts like the Mountain Pine Beetle and fire threats.

This is the latest of several attempts by the BC government to increase corporate logging rights over large areas of BC. Just over a year ago, the government slipped an amendment to the Forest Act into a “Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act” that would have allowed the Minister of Forests to convert volume-based logging rights into tree farm licences. Last year the government ultimately backed down because of public opposition – and the fact that there had been no public consultation around the proposed change. It’s back this year with a slick website and discussion paper, but the basic proposal, predicated on increasing corporate control of our forests, is the same. Please take a moment to submit your comments to let the provincial government know that it is no more palatable today than in the past.

Jessica Clogg, Executive Director & Senior Counsel
Andrew Gage, Staff Counsel

1Bruce Fraser, Summary of Public Input at Public Information Sessions on the proposed policy and procedures for the replacement of major volume-based tenures with tree farm licences (Victoria: Ministry of Forests, 1989) at 4.