Is BC Privatizing Forest Management?

Deputy Chief Forester Ken Baker described BC ‘s Liberal government’s new forestry funding scheme as a step in the direction of the privatization of forestry in the province.

Life Beyond FRBC; A summary of the latest developments around forestry funding, the forest investment vote and what actions the WSCA is taking.

Is this the beginning of privatization of forest management in British Columbia?

Trying to sort out British Columbia forest policy these days is like looking through a kaleidoscope. All the parts are there, but we are a long ways from figuring out what the picture actually looks like.

Speaking last week to silvicultural foresters in Penticton Deputy Chief Forester Ken Baker tried to unscramble things a little by describing the forest investment vote; the funding mechanism that will define public spending in forestry post FRBC. He did it he said, “with some trepidation. Nothing is firm yet. I mean absolutely nothing. It is a work in progress.”

Baker, perhaps needlessly, reminded everyone that the ministry of forests was downsizing. He then told the audience, many of whom were ministry staff already pink-slipped or taking buy-out packages, that, “Government has a lot less resources to bear on this. Almost none as a matter of fact.”

In 2002/03 the vote will provide $146-million of which $84-million will support land-based activities to be delivered by forest tenure holders. The balance, $62-million, will be spent at the provincial level including: research ($20m); tree improvement ($6m); Crown land-use planning ($3m); small woodlands ($1m); provincial standards development, data management, permitting ($12m); value added promotion ($8m); and international marketing ($12m).

At roughly half the money of the previous FRBC budget it’s obvious no one will be going hog-wild at this public trough. But even this scant allocation—it is silent on dealing with the backlog and contains only half the amount promised during the election for international marketing—barely escaped being sucked into the maw of Treasury according to Baker.

“This vote came close to not happening. It was thanks to the deputy minister [Don Wright] that it was kept on the agenda.” From Baker’s description it looks like this may not be the last time Wright will have to arm-wrestle Treasury.

“The forest investment vote is public money voted annually in the Legislature separate from the ministry of forests. It is not a superstumpage and it is unlike the Alberta trust fund model that uses private dollars. It is public money subject to the scrutiny of the Legislature, the Auditor General, the Attorney General and other provincial agencies.” Baker made it clear the vote will not necessarily enjoy any immunity from future Liberal cutbacks to programs and services across the province. He stated that forestry could even disappear as a public investment.

“We are embarked on a very grand experiment,” said Baker, referring obviously to the policy’s unknowns and risks rather than the volume of money or the scope of the program. “The provincial government will be keenly tuned to how this money is spent. . .We are already pretty close to zero dollars. Non-compliance could kill it.”

Baker recognized the central conundrum of the scheme; what he called the uncertain melding of “private sector motives with public sector dollars.” He admitted there were potential problems with the design of the mechanism, one that gives licensees wide latitude to spend public dollars locally as well as considerable influence over the original setting of program priorities and eligibility criteria. Licensees could be in a potential conflict of interest in some of the original strategic planning he said which will be directed by a select committee of deputy ministers, licensees and ministry staff.

“However, the Legislature will review at the next [year’s] vote whether the money has been spent wisely.” But foresters may not find the notion of an annual review either comforting or practical.

First of all, the yearly vote runs contrary to the development of long term multi-year planning. Questioning Baker foresters made it clear this short term approach was a set-back to the competent practice of long term silviculture. Baker offered some relief by saying government planners would try and recognize that some projects implied funding from more than one vote. “Nevertheless, the implications [for multi-year projects] are lousy,” he said.

But the most intractable problem may come from defining the objectives of sustainable forest management itself, which are the broad goals of the forest investment vote. As the underlying principal in stewarding forests sustainable forest management remains imprecise—widely stated but not well defined. “It is more of a theme than anything,” said Baker. His comments seem to imply that if foresters can’t clearly define forestry goals how will the Legislature recognize wise and necessary spending? If the Liberals remain bent on forcing difficult and harsh decisions on more immediate issues like services and infrastructure reductions then poorly defined forest management programs would likely wither summarily.

Recognizing defining sustainable forest management is already a contentious issue, Baker said some of the vagueness may be resolved through the priorities set in the pending results-based forest practices code. However, as some foresters pointed out, whatever this likely protracted and tortuous process comes up with, it will have to be put into practice through another, as yet, untried entity: the defined forest management area.

This proposed mechanism, which may amount to a government-imposed cooperative comprising various tenure holders and other competing stakeholders, is still more of an artist’s rendering than an actual blueprint. Like many other forest policy works in progress it is a long way from being sorted out. Stating that there are obviously lots of questions and scant resources to answer them Baker doubted money would be flowing through the defined forest management area mechanism any time soon in the new fiscal year. The actual administration of the forest investment vote money will be handled by an outside third party said Baker.

Defining the vote’s funding priorities, Baker was clear about the (lack of) priority attached to backlog reforestation formerly funded by FRBC. “Government is getting out of backlog reforestation. We don’t have the money anymore.” He said government would instead concentrate on existing maintenance of established stands including surveys, spacing, fertilizing, pruning etc. He said if licensees chose to spend money on the backlog they could apply for funding. However he emphasized the need for a balanced approach that recognized other forest values and restoration obligations. “I imagine the minister of Water, Air and Land Protection will be watching these spending levels,” said Baker.

“I view this as the start of privatization of forest management in the province,” said Baker summing up with a conjecture growing common among foresters across the province. It also underpins the WSCA strategy in this policy arena. What is the WSCA doing regarding the ongoing development of policy around forestry funding?

At the recent association AGM this issue was given top priority. A set of principles and policy proposals regarding forestry funding are currently being drafted by the WSCA Forestry Funding Committee. These proposals will be submitted to the ongoing process developing the drafting of a results-based code. A presentation has also be requested before the Government Caucus Committee on Natural Resources.

The WSCA proposal assumes there is a shift towards “privatization” of forest management and recommends a basic “user pay” approach that would see resource users charged with the obligation to maintain the value of the forest. In practice this would extend timber harvesters’ obligations beyond the arbitrary free to grow status the current regulations require. Other resource users would be obligated to do the same. The full details of the WSCA scheme are still being developed. A draft will be completed in the next few weeks and shared with members for comment.

Other issues such as carbon credits are being explored by the WSCA in concert with some forward-thinking industry players as a possible source for funding some forestry activities.

— Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association WSCA Executive Director’s Office, RR#3 S36 C9, Nelson B.C. V1L 5P6 Phone/fax 250-229-4380 e-mail hotpulp@netidea.com