Let’s get serious about forests

When you talk to British Columbians about the crisis in B.C. forests, you often receive one of two responses.

When you talk to British Columbians about the crisis in B.C. forests, you often receive one of two responses.

People in Metro Vancouver may ask: ‘What forestry crisis?’

But people living in resource-dependent communities — like the Kootenays, the Interior or Vancouver Island — know exactly what you’re talking about.

They have borne the brunt of an economic downturn and government policies that have eliminated tens of thousands of forest jobs across the province.

However, to hear Minister of Forests, Mines and Lands Pat Bell tell it, B.C.’s forest industry couldn’t be doing better: “The industry is back, it is an incredible success,” Bell said in a mid-December news story, heralding a “great new era” for B.C. forest communities.

Minister Bell also talked glowingly about increased forest exports to Japan and China — now comprising more than 40 per cent of B.C. wood exports — and touted B.C.’s supposedly “sustainable forest management.”

What minister Bell doesn’t tell British Columbians is that forest-sector revenue has plunged to just $387 million in 2009-10, from $1.34 billion in 2001. While wood exports to China are up, a much higher proportion is in the form of raw logs — from 1.1 per cent in 2000 to 16.4 per cent in 2010.

BC raw log exports have more than doubled in the past 10 years. For example, the Port Alberni Port Authority reports that raw log exports were up 65 per cent in 2009 over the previous year to 456,000 tonnes, compared to 80,000 tonnes of lumber exports.

The real impact on local communities has come from mill closures and the related jobs that go with them. In the past nine years, 71 mills have closed down, after the B.C. government dropped the requirement to process wood in local communities.

More than 40,000 forest sector jobs have been lost since the B.C. Liberals came to office. Forest sector jobs as a proportion of total employment also dropped dramatically — to just 2.3 per cent in 2009 from 5.1 per cent in 2000.

The public service has been ravaged by massive cuts, especially to resource ministries. More than 1,000 forest service jobs were eliminated since 2002 in key areas like compliance and enforcement and research — as the BC Liberal government systematically dismantled ministries and imposed a management regime that allows forest companies to regulate themselves.

Former Energy Minster Bill Bennett admitted this in a recent Vancouver Sun article: “The fundamental problem facing the natural resource ministries is they’re underfunded,” said Bennett. “We work the heck out of them [the employees] and we don’t have enough funds within these ministries to… do the work that actually leads to the majority of the revenue that comes in to government.”

After nine years of neglect, resource communities can’t afford to stand by any longer. With leadership changing in both major political parties, British Columbians have a real opportunity to help re-shape the public policies that impact our communities.

The BCGEU is taking a leadership role in this effort — by engaging community leaders from municipal governments, forest labour unions, environment and non-profit groups in a series of community dialogue sessions in four key resource communities across B.C.

We will discuss the current crisis in B.C. forests and generate ideas for positive solutions that bring sustainable economic benefits to local communities, and ensure responsible stewardship of our public forests and water resources.

Information from the sessions will be incorporated into a comprehensive forest policy document that will be used to stimulate debate and advocate for positive change in B.C.’s forest sector.

The first community dialogue session was set for Castlegar on Jan. 26. I will also be meeting with local BCGEU forest service members in the region to hear their views on the state of B.C. forests.

Community members can also have their views heard, by visiting the ‘BC Forests. Our Future.’ web site (www.bcgeu.ca/do_the_right_thing_for_BC_forests), and sending their ideas online to key B.C. government ministers.

Let’s make our public forests work for all British Columbians.

Darryl Walker is president of the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union

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