Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Ottawa dodges chance to reduce pine beetle disaster

VICTORIA - The pine beetle is taking the province inexorably towards a massive natural disaster.
The economic damage will dwarf anything Canada has experienced in the last decade, with consequences more severe than B.C.'s forest fires, or Quebec's ice storm.
But the government response, provincially and federally, has so far not matched the seriousness of the problem.
Federal Industry Minister David Emerson has just rejected the province's request for a $1-billion aid package over the next decade. Too expensive, he says. Ottawa wants to find cheaper ways of helping communities cope with the crisis.
Part of the problem is the way the disaster is unfolding in slow motion. The 1998 Quebec ice storm hit in a day, and Ottawa quickly came up with about $1 billion in today's dollars.
The beetle disaster's consequences are still up to 15 years away, and governments are not good at thinking that far ahead.
The beetles are killing the forests now.Ultimately scientists figure 80 per cent of the province's lodgepole pine - the dominant species across much of the Interior - will be dead.
The dead trees will retain their value for 10 to 15 years. The rush to harvest that timber before it goes to waste is creating a boom in communities across the Interior and North.
But at the end of that boom will be a brutal bust.
Once the trees are harvested, or lose their value, those communities face dramatic reductions in the amount of timber available for harvest. Even with aggressive reforestation, replacement trees will be decades away from maturity.
Across much of the province communities are facing 20 to 40-per-cent reductions in their annual allowable cuts by 2015.
What that means is a crushing loss of jobs and economic activity. In the Quesnel area the timber supply is expected to be cut by one-third. About three-quarters of the 12,000 area jobs are tied to the forest industry. That means about 2,600 jobs are at risk. The spin-off effects - on schools, housing prices, retailers- will be enormous. (The impact would be the same as 35,000 people losing their jobs in Greater Victoria.)
The current boom will make the crash even harder. Forest employment could fall by 50 per cent in Quesnel from its peak, Canadian Forest Service economist Bill White told a Prince George conference this week.
All of which makes Emerson's rejection of B.C.'s request for aid surprising.
The federal government has been providing $8 million a year since 2002, mainly for research. Earlier this year Ottawa came up with a one-time $100 million contribution for beetle response efforts.
But what's needed is stable, long-term funding to allow a sweeping response. The to do list is daunting. Reforestation is critical, as is a search for ways to get more value - and jobs - out of the timber remaining for harvest.
Communities will also need help looking beyond the forest industry for new job creation, and support in investing in the changes needed to attract those businesses. Displaced workers will need retraining. Work needs to start now on promoting mining, and ranching and tourism in the affected regions.
And everyone deserves information to let them make informed decisions about their futures.
That kind of response requires a long-term funding commitment.
The provincial government has been moving slowly on its own financial commitment, in part because it feared giving Ottawa an easy out.
The province has allocated $89 million for reforestation efforts over the next three years, and Premier Gordon Campbell promised $30 million in pine beetle support for Northern communities in the eve of the election campaign. There's an economic diversification co-ordinator, and an advisory committee that meets twice a year.
But given the size of the problem, concern is increasing that not enough is being now to deal with a crisis that is clearly on the horizon.
It's rare that you can see a disaster coming. Nothing will stop it, but we do at least have the chance to plan and prepare.
Footnote: The defeat of Skeena Liberal Roger Harris has been a setback in the beetle response efforts. Harris had responsibility for the issues as junior forest minister, and appeared to be moving the government towards a more complete response.

1 comment:

Oliver said...

This is a huge disaster and has been a long time in coming.

The Feds won't put up dough because they want their thanks now, not in 15 years, when they may not be in power.

It is interesting that so much emphasis has been put on economic diversification in the recovery efforts, instead of working on how to prevent this disaster from happening. It is still preventable - I was up in the interior a couple weeks ago, and many lodgepole pine forests are still untouched by the Mountain Pine Beetle. This can be solved with governmental support and willpower.

But the real stupidity to me seems to be the fact that economic diversification won't come to those communities hardest hit by this - unless it comes from mining. They are for the most part too remote to get into secondary processing of anything and local markets for goods are generally too small. Tourism as a fallback is a poor one because unless you are an owner-operator, you are paid minimum wage - a far cry from the industrial wages paid by the Forestry sector. Even if you are an owner operator, the fact is that tourism is seasonal - in other words you have a small set of months to make your buck, then you have to live off your savings until the next season starts.

But even worse, even if people can be retrained to work in tourism, who in the world is going to pay to come to a "wilderness" where all the trees are dead and rotting, the hillsides are just piles of rotting wood and the "old growth forests" are just piles of sticks with marmots living in them? People don't pay to see bonfires of dead wood and bug corpses.