Forest sector key issue in election

One political party is calling the past decade a time of "neglect" in the B.C. forest industry with job losses and flimsy inventory data the result.

The other is claiming victory over three major crises to simultaneously hit the B.C. forest sector, and pointing to the sector's recent gains.

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Both the NDP and the Liberals continue to realize the importance of the forest sector as a campaign issue, heading towards the vote on May 14. Both party leaders were in Prince George during the recent Council of Forest Industries (COFI) conference to stress their belief in the future of forestry.

The COFI conference took a hiatus when the industry was at its worst a few years ago. The global economic collapse crippled the United States construction industry, which was usually the biggest buyer of B.C. wood. Mills across the province, and all their suppliers and spinoff stakeholders, lost much of their business almost instantly and with little warning.

On top of this, the B.C. forest sector had taken the brunt of American trade lobbyists who tied the industry up in years of lawsuits and hefty border fees for softwood lumber imported from Canadian mills.

On top of it all was the mountain pine beetle epidemic, which ravaged B.C. forests, killing millions of trees and causing a harvesting-milling-replanting crisis that may take decades to resolve.

Although lumber prices are near record highs, timber supply remains an issue but today's mill owners are reporting cautious optimism about their future, and their American counterparts seem to have run out of credible legal arguments.

The NDP were in Prince George on Monday to further push their forestry agenda. Forestry critic Norm MacDonald was at the COFI conference and also by the side of party leader Adrian Dix in to outline how they would manage the forest industry, if given the chance. MacDonald has been in his critic's portfolio for four years and co-chaired the legislative committee studying timber supply with local MLA John Rustad, the government's parliamentary secretary for forestry.

Dix said MacDonald was one of the main authors of the NDP's forestry plan.

"In forestry, you have to think long-term. Governments come and go, but forestry is unique like that - you have to invest and think through to 60 or 70 years down the road," said MacDonald. "Decades worth of losses can occur if you set back your forestry programs by only four or five years. This government has chosen, consistently, not to act. Our forests and the opportunities for people working in our forests have been set back."

Nonetheless, he said, B.C. is selling more lumber and other wood products than ever before to a larger number of countries than ever. It is an industry no longer fully dependent on the United States construction sector so "these are exciting times."

He and Dix were surrounded by enthusiastic supporters, including forestry trade union officials, at their platform unveiling, Monday.

While the current government gets the industry's criticism for some of the forest sector's handling, there is also credit being expressed by the wood products companies of today. Premier Christy Clark received three standing ovations (four if you count her praise of Burns Lake mayor Luke Strimbold's handling of the Babine Forest Products explosion aftermath) at her COFI speech - a far greater reaction than the polite applause obtained by Dix at the same event.

"I believe government should get out of the way of your imaginations and the way you want to innovate," Clark said. "I get nervous when I hear [Dix] say you have a right to make reasonable profits. I don't believe it is the role of government to figure out what profits are reasonable for you to make."

Both major political parties insist that this election is about creating a forestry sector that future generations will inherit. The policy choices made now, as the industry continues to diversify, will resonate for generations.

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