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British Columbia is blessed by nature with a vast, ecologically rich forest estate that also has been a source of sustained economic wealth for more than a century. But today there are troubling signs that the most important of natural assets is facing challenges never before seen.

The area of inadequately restocked or reforested land is larger than at any point in the history of forest management in the province and is estimated to be around nine million hectares, with about half attributable to the mountain pine beetle infestation.

In fact, this area known in forestry parlance as NSR or Not Satisfactorily Restocked is nearly three times greater than it was 25 years ago when the provincial and federal governments embarked on concerted efforts to address what was then a reforestation challenge of the first order.

Not only is today’s reforestation challenge so much greater than in the past, but the growth in NSR continues, and will likely worsen in the face of continued provincial inaction.

To give context to the present challenge, a brief look at the past is instructive. In 1984, British Columbia’s NSR stood at 3.4 million hectares. It was considered so outrageous that it precipitated a crisis in forest management, critical national media coverage and a federal response of over $457 million from 1985 to 1995 to assist the province in reforestation.

The reforestation crisis of the 1980s was not only informative because of the sustained public investments that resulted, but also because it led the province to enact new laws in 1987.

That’s when it became a legal requirement for logging companies to reforest the lands that they logged and for the provincial government to come up with reforestation plans on lands disturbed by forest fires and insect and disease outbreaks. Fifteen years later in 2002, however, the provincial government reversed its position. It rescinded its own legal responsibilities for reforestation and relaxed reforestation rules for forest companies over hundreds of thousands of hectares of forestland that would subsequently be logged under what became known as “small-scale-salvage” operations.

To make matters worse, the government also rescinded its legal responsibility to survey forestlands, with the result that three-quarters of the province’s forestlands have inventories that are now 25 or more years out of date.

So, why should we care? Well, the most obvious reply is that forestland in British Columbia is by and large public land. Whenever such lands are inadequately restocked or reforested, questions are rightly asked about impacts on our environment and economy.

A less obvious, but nonetheless equally important reply, is that NSR indirectly puts the standard of living of our urban populations at risk. Most British Columbians live in Vancouver and Victoria and each was blessed at birth, or upon taking up residence, with a shared inheritance of publicly owned natural assets and wealth beyond the wildest dreams of any peoples on Earth.

The affluence and lifestyle enjoyed by the people of Vancouver and Victoria exist because of the variety and wealth of the rural estates that sustain them: the agriculture and fisheries estates that feed them; the water estate that provides their drinking water, irrigates their food crops and powers their homes and industries; the mining and energy estates that bring in wealth and foreign exchange; the forestry estate that provides their paper and lumber for homes and export; and lastly, the richest estate of all, a natural world of forests, mountains and rivers abundant with plants and animals, a destination for recreation and tourism, and a sanctuary for intellectual and artistic inspiration.

The present magnitude of NSR is a threat not only to forest sustainability but also to the safety, quality and availability of water, to the survival of salmon, and to the economic future of the rural communities that in turn sustain the populations of Vancouver and Victoria. Hold your politicians accountable for taking care of your backyard because if you don’t, they won’t.

Anthony Britneff recently retired from a 39-year career with the B.C. Forest Service, in which he held senior professional positions in the inventory, reforestation and forest health programs.

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