B.C.’s newly-minted forests minister, Pat Bell, has unveiled a concept he believes can prevent a significant decrease in timber supply in the Interior from the pine beetle epidemic.

The timber supply is forecast to drop by as much as 40 per cent in the Interior, and with it forestry activity and jobs.

It’s a major concern for Interior communities, particularly those in the Northern Interior that depend on the forestry economy for the bulk of their jobs.

Bell’s idea — which he has had the chief forester’s office crunch numbers for him — is to utilize more dead pine in the immediate future, leaving more green timber to be harvested later. At the same time, he wants to see more money spent on growing bigger trees, faster.

Bell views it as chipping away — or, actually, filling in timber in the midterm — both now and in the future.

“The more you push on these walls, the more (the timber availability) moves up,” said Bell, who gave the first look at the plan to Northern Interior industry leaders Thursday night at the Council of Forest Industries’ annual community dinner in Prince George.

The numbers crunched by the chief forester’s office show, says Bell, that his scheme could potentially mitigate almost all of the expected timber decrease. It would bring the annual allowable cut to 49 million cubic metres a year in the Interior, just one million cubic metres short of its historic value of 50 million cubic metres. (The allowable harvest in the Interior is actually greater now because the chief forester raised it to deal with the beetle epidemic).

The way to utilize more of the dead pine now is to find a use for wood no longer good for traditional lumber production, for example, in the bioenergy sector, explained Bell.

That could make it economical now to start logging marginal stands with perhaps only 20 per cent of the timber recoverable as lumber, he said. That, in turn, would reduce the need to log the existing mature timber volume untouched by the beetle, mostly spruce, fir and balsam, added Bell. About 20 million cubic metres of non-pine is still being logged in the Interior now.

The second element is to find a way to make an investment in growing trees faster using, perhaps, techniques like fertilizers and thinning, said Bell.

A perennial problem with this idea is that the province’s largely volume-based timber tenure system means there’s little incentive to make increased silviculture investments because they don’t accrue to those who make them, usually industry.

Bell said the way to address this issue — ensuring that those who make the silviculture investment a benefit — is to either increase the amount of area-based timber tenures, have the province make the investment or create a new silviculture tenure.

The silviculture tenure — which could be held by First Nations or contractors, for example — would run for the period it takes to plant and grow a mature tree, 70 years perhaps, or 50 years. Bell acknowledged taking the concept and turning it into action will not be easy. “But it’s introducing a concept I’ve believed in for a long time, I’ve always believed this is possible, but now I have some quantifiable numbers that demonstrate here is at least some preliminary thoughts of what we can do,” said Bell, Prince George North MLA and a former logger.

He says he has already directed staff to begin finding ways to implement the concept.

NDP forestry critic Bob Simpson said while he doesn’t disagree with the general concept, Bell will need more robust timber inventories before drawing conclusions from the concept. He noted that pine beetle timber supply forecasts have not taken into account attacks on young stands or other pests.

The Cariboo North MLA noted that if Bell wants companies to be cutting more dead pine, he has the power to force them to do so. Simpson dismissed the bioenegy plan as providing a solution since it’s produced no results so far.

It will also be tough to encourage industry to invest more in silviculture when the provincial government has reduced its own spending on advanced silviculture, said Simpson, a former forest executive who lives in Quesnel.

“Get on with (a silviculture program), get money on the table, get people on the ground,” said Simpson.

Brink Forest Products president John Brink said he likes Bell’s concept and is encouraged by it. Brink said the idea fits perfectly with his own, which is to use low-grade timber to manufacture lumber and secondary products, then sending the waste elsewhere, perhaps to a bioenergy plant.

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