Is the province equipped to tackle the pine beetle’s long-term impact?

As many British Columbians know, the province is witnessing one of its biggest logging booms in decades. More trees are falling than ever in the Interior, and will for years to come. But today’s boom presages a dark future wherein resource-dependent communities and the provincial treasury both will be hit hard.

Legions of beetles killing millions of pine trees are behind the boom. The provincial government, intent upon extracting economic value from those dead trees, has approved unprecedented logging increases. In the next five years, nearly 55 million cubic metres in additional timber could be logged in the Interior — enough wood to fill logging trucks lined bumper to bumper across Canada nearly six times.

But then what? The simple truth is that beyond an immediate ramp-up in salvage logging, the province has no mid- to long-term plan for dealing with the epidemic. What happens to our forests and forest-dependent communities after the fall?

Properly done, forestry is a reasonably sustainable enterprise, unlike fossil fuel extraction, which the provincial government seems overly obsessed with. But when our natural gas reserves run out, we will still have forests. The big question before us is whether we make wise investments today to ensure reasonably healthy forests tomorrow.

Sadly, the response to date is far from encouraging.

Forestry is first and foremost a provincial responsibility. Yet at almost every turn, provincial politicians like Forests Minister Mike de Jong proclaim the need for federal dollars, saying that the magnitude of the outbreak requires investments on the order of $1.5 billion.

Given forestry’s importance to the provincial economy, Victoria has offered very little, especially when compared to Ottawa. For example, the Canadian Forest Service is spearheading a $40-million research effort aimed at understanding how we may more effectively respond to the ongoing attack. In addition, a few weeks ago Ottawa pledged another $100 million to BC. If that commitment passes committee, those federal dollars may be spent to help blunt the beetles’ forward momentum in some key areas.

Arguments may be made that given the outbreak’s severity and its potential to enter the cross-country boreal forest the feds should commit more funds. But Ottawa would be more than justified now in saying no given Victoria’s lackluster response and its drastic cuts to its own forestry staff.

In the past three years alone, BC’s Forest Service has lost 800 positions. In critically important areas of historic forestry responsibility such as inventory (the counting of trees), reforestation and research BC’s Forest Service is a shadow of its former self. Indeed, staffing cuts in these three areas over the past decade totalled 85 per cent, 80 per cent and 40 per cent respectively.

Last December, no less than the Association of BC Forest Professionals wrote Premier Gordon Campbell lamenting his government’s “minimalist, short-term thinking” and warning that the cuts undermined the ability of the Association’s 3,500 members to make “sound, science-based, forest resource management decisions.”

Two disquieting trends add further to a sense of unease. The first is declining public sector investments in reforestation. In 2001, under Forest Renewal BC, $45 million went to reforest a backlog of lands that had previously been logged, burned or overrun by pests and not reforested. A year later, under the Forest Investment Account, expenditures fell to $19 million. The next year, FIA investments were just $7 million. And last year they bottomed out at a paltry $3 million. This wholesale withdrawal of public reforestation dollars coincided with a beetle attack that claimed 800,000 hectares of forestland in 2001 and more than 7 million hectares last year.

By the province’s own accounts, deforestation is escalating. Beetles are overrunning forests that won’t be logged and replanted by the companies before the trees lose their economic value. If even a fraction of those lands were reforested, billions of dollars would be required. Yet in its latest budget, BC committed to spending just $89 million over the next three years on reforestation and other undefined responses to the beetles.

In the Interior, where logging, beetles, fires and global warming are contributing to an unparalleled forest health crisis, it’s time for bold action soundly grounded in research and, where appropriate, wise reforestation efforts.

Considering the province’s demonstrated lack of serious financial commitment to addressing the unfolding crisis, Victoria should count itself lucky to have got a penny from Ottawa.

In the meantime, logging continues rapaciously while Victoria shows few signs of responding with the kind of dollars that signal renewal is a priority. The riches of the hinterland bleed away, perhaps never to be seen again. Forests forever? Don’t count on it.

— Ben Parfitt is the resource policy analyst with the BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives http://www.policyalternatives.ca