Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Forest communities face huge crisis in 15 years

VICTORIA - The crushing economic impact of the pine beetle disaster is going to slam B.C. communities in 15 years.
The infested trees will mostly be gone, either harvested or too damaged to have any value. The next generation of trees will be decades away from maturity.
Across the Interior and North, forest-dependent communities - that's almost all of them - will be facing annual allowable cut reductions of 20 per cent to 30 per cent. There won't be enough fibre to keep mills operating, or loggers working.
That's the bad news.
The good news, or at least hopeful news, is that we have 15 years to prepare. And communities and government have taken the first step in looking ahead to the grisly problem.
Roger Harris, minister for forest operations, outlined the problem at the last televised cabinet meeting. The cabinet's reaction was a little disturbing. No minister asked about the coming crisis. (They did make sure no extra money would be spent on efforts to prepare.)
But still, the problem was placed on the table. That's remarkable. We're not as a society much good at long-term thinking. It is a huge advantage to begin working now to prepare for an economic crisis 10 years that will come after the Vancouver Olympics.
There's been lots of talk about the pine beetle infestation. An area about six times as large as Vancouver Island has been affected, and thousands of trees are dying.
The immediate focus is on using the infected wood. For 10 to 15 years, depending on the climate, the timber is still useful. Harvesting it before the value is lost will save jobs and protect government revenues. (Targeted harvesting could also slow the infestation's spread.)
But the much bigger problems are about 15 years away, when communities find themselves facing a sharply reduced timber supply.
Harris said across the Interior and North the annual allowable cut will be cut by 20 per cent to 30 per cent.
The impact is enormous. In the Quesnel area the timber supply is expected to be cut by almost one-third. About three-quarters of the 12,000 area jobs are tied to the forest industry. Do the math, and you find that about 2,600 jobs at risk. Multiply that across scores of communities, and you have an idea of the impact. (Imagine a coming economic blow that would see 300,000 people laid off in the Lower Mainland.)
It may not be that bad. But the best predictions are for a huge crisis.
There are no easy solutions. The current efforts are aimed at harvesting the beetle-infested wood before it loses value. Harris told cabinet some 500 million cubic metres of wood will be affected within three years. At current harvest levels about 200 million cubic metres of that timber will be wasted. That's more than three years' harvest for the entire province.
The solution is to use the wood more quickly, But although the government has raised the allowable cut, companies haven't found markets for the wood. Cabinet accepted Harris' plan to try and encourage new uses for the damaged wood.
The effort is worthwhile, but faces huge challenges. Solutions like an OSB plant sound fine, but a plant like the one going into Fort St. John costs $200 million and only uses about one million cubic metres a year, a fraction of the glut.
And no amount of success will change the future reality.
Harris won approval for the first steps. An economic diversification director has been appointed to help communities prepare for the crisis. A community advisory group, including First Nations, municipalities, industry and environmentalists will meet twice a year to review progress.
It's a small start.
But it's an important one, and the Liberals deserve credit for facing the problem.
Footnote: Cabinet asked no questions about the long-term crisis after Harris' presentation. Premier Gordon Campbell and Financed Minister Gary Collins did make sure no extra spending was involved this year, noting that the Liberal commitment to balance the budget has left no room for extra spending.

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