Monday, December 13, 2004

Communities need trust fund for pine beetle disaster

VICTORIA - It's time to ditch all the politics and start coming up with a plan to rescue communities across B.C. from the coming pine beetle disaster.
It's hard for politicians to resist blaming the other guys for real or imagined errors.
But this is much too important. A natural disaster is going to slam into dozens of forest communities, far bigger than the 2003 fires or floods or anything else we've experienced. We know it's inevitable. And we have to be ready.
The pine beetle is infesting trees today, and those trees are dying. It's no real problem for us now. We can keep harvesting the timber, which holds its value for perhaps a decade.
But the crisis is smashing the natural cycle of harvest and regeneration. Almost 80 per cent of the province's lodgepole pine are expected to die. Once those trees are gone - either harvested or left to rot - the next generation will be decades away from harvest.
Across the province, communities are facing 20 per cent to 40 per cent reductions in their annual allowable cuts within the next 15 to 20 years. That means huge job losses in communities where forestry is the dominant kingpin of the economy. In some case, mills will simply close. And in every case the damage will last for years, perhaps decades.
In the Quesnel area, to take one example, the timber supply is expected to be cut by almost one-third. About 75 per cent of the 12,000 area jobs are tied to the forest industry, which means more than 2,500 jobs will vanish. That's the equivalent of some calamity wiping out 300,000 jobs in the Lower Mainland.
One response is obvious. Both the Liberals and NDP agree that a legacy or development fund would help communities prepare for the crisis, paying for their efforts to develop other economic opportunities.
It doesn't need to take a big bite out of spending on other programs. Part of the government's plan to address the problem is an increase in harvesting across the province to capture the value of the infested wood. Annual allowable cuts have been increased by up to 40 per cent.
It's proving hard to increase harvest levels quickly. Companies aren't prepared for extra volumes, and markets are uncertain. But by the end of next year harvest levels are expected to be significantly higher.
That means more stumpage and tax revenues for government, money that would - without the crisis - have not flowed into its coffers until well into the future.
And that's the money that could be the start of a permanent funds to help communities prepare for the coming crisis. They could work at tourism promotion, or improve their infrastructure, or support retraining programs. They could pay for studies on alternate economic opportunities, or efforts to attract new industries.
And they could come up with assessments of some of the hard truths. Not all the economic damage can likely be avoided, and families, municipalities, school districts and businesses all need time to make informed decisions about their futures.
There even seems to be rare bipartisan agreement on the value of a legacy fund. Both NDP leader Carole James and Roger Harris, the junior forest minister responsible for responding to the crisis, back the idea. Harris says advisory group is working on plans.
The sooner they report, and the quicker the government response, the better.
The crisis sounds a long way off. But the kinds of economic shifts that are required is immense. Progress will be slow, and victories will be hard-won.
The extra stumpage probably isn't enough money to fund the needed transition, and certainly won't flow quickly enough. But it is a start; a reasonable guess is that the extra harvesting will produce some $15 million a year.
The coming crisis is very bad news, far more damaging than the softwood lumber dispute, or the SARS scare.
The only good news is that for once we have time to prepare.
Footnote: Harris will meet with the 13-member advisory group - representatives of municipalities, First Nations, industry, environmental groups and academics -in January. Communities should expect word on the economic futures fund and other measures after that meeting. And they should demand a firm commitment before the May election.

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