B.C.’s modest tree-planting goals are falling far short of the need.

Few events offer as compelling an example of what climate change might mean for British Columbia as the mountain pine beetle infestation and its impact on our forests.

More than one billion dead pine trees are now spread across a swath of the province equal in size to England.

The outbreak has stunning implications for our economy and the environment. Yet judging from the planned sessions of the annual Truck Loggers Association conference in Victoria this week — where both B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and Forests Minister Pat Bell will speak — the pine beetle catastrophe scarcely merits passing mention.

The premier’s talk promises to “captivate” delegates with stories about the “new face” of forestry, while Bell will participate on a panel on “changing global demand” for forest products.

While no one should discount the need to lift our forest industry out of its economic doldrums, the risk in doing so is that we put the cart before the horse.

Without massive, sustained tree-planting efforts there is no foundation for a healthy, diversified forest industry.

Nor, for that matter, can B.C. make a dent in its greenhouse-gas emissions, which are far higher than routinely reported precisely because of those billion-plus dead pine trees, which are now releasing their carbon stores back into the Earth’s overheated atmosphere.

Those emissions don’t count in the province’s emissions tally because, in theory, they are “offset” by the carbon stored in new trees.

Which takes us to the nub of the problem. Are we planting enough?

For obvious reasons having to do with the dollars needed to embark on a ramped-up reforestation effort, neither the premier nor the forests minister is eager to talk about this. But there is no questioning the need.

Last fall, the Forests Ministry quietly posted a PowerPoint presentation on its website that for the first time presented a more accurate picture of the true reforestation challenge. The document noted that a large area of land — an estimated 700,000 hectares — was “missing” in previous government calculations of how much pine beetle-attacked forest was in need of replanting.

This effectively doubled the estimated area, bringing the total to more than 1.4 million hectares, an area six times larger than the entire Capital Regional District.

Significantly, this estimate barely scratched the surface of the true scope of the reforestation challenge, as it addressed only those forests attacked by pine beetles, not those damaged by other pests or devastating forest fires.

In the face of this growing unfunded public liability, the province has yet to deviate from its embarrassingly modest Forests for Tomorrow program, which projects planting only 17.5 million to 20 million seedlings a year.

Commercial tree nurseries across the province are reporting some of the lowest orders for planting stock ever seen.

Meanwhile, the federal government, which announced a few years ago that it would spend $100 million annually over 10 years on pine beetle-related investments, stopped its annual installments after just two years. Worse yet, much of that money never made it into actual tree-planting programs, but instead was diverted into airport runway expansions in Prince George and highway upgrades.

The provincial government has said almost nothing about the federal funding withdrawal, perhaps out of a fear that highlighting the federal government’s broken promise would call attention to its own lacklustre response.

The sad thing in all of this is that there are realistic opportunities to lay the foundation for healthier forests and a healthier forest industry, all centred on the valuable role that our forests and forest products play in storing atmospheric carbon.

It was that role that brought three of the province’s leading environmental organizations and all three of its forest industry unions together last week to release a new study that calls on the province to take concerted steps to address climate change through a range of actions, including planting more carbon-storing trees on lands in desperate need of reforestation.

There are solutions to the mess our forests are in. If we want healthy forests for tomorrow, we must invest in them today.

Ben Parfitt is resource policy analyst with the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and author of Managing B.C.’s Forests for a Cooler Planet: Carbon Storage, Sustainable Jobs and Conservation, available at www.policyalternatives.ca.

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