War of words accompanies launch of public consultation on forest sector

Complete with a series of community meetings, the provincial government has launched a public consultation process on the future of the Interior forest sector.

Starting this week and lasting until at least late August, "localized, in-person engagement sessions" will be held in two dozen towns while submissions will be accepted online until October 11.

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Forests Minister Doug Donaldson was quick to accuse the previous Liberal government of failing to prepare for the inevitable, namely a wave of sawmill closures as a result of the decline in available timber.

"The previous government failed to help the forest sector when it had a chance, eroding the public's trust in B.C.'s forest sector operations and diminishing its competitive advantage," he said in a press release issued Thursday.

"We are taking action and making different choices by asking for local input and insight into how we want to shape a prosperous, competitive and culturally sensitive Interior future forest sector."

Opposition critic John Rustad, in turn, accused the governing NDP of inaction in its own right, noting how long it will take for the process to conclude. In a press release, the Liberals dismissed the exercise as a "useless survey."

"I think it's good that the government is seeking input on forestry, but they seem to be completely ignoring the fact that the industry has got a crisis right now," Rustad said in an interview. "There are short term things that are needed."

Alluding to a five-point plan Interior Liberal MLAs highlighted earlier this week, Rustad suggested support for contractor struggling to make payments, bridging older workers through to retirement, job sharing and putting a greater emphasis on clearing out areas prone to wildfires as a form of job-creation.

"This is the type of action the government should be taking and it's very frustrating that they just seem to be fiddling while Rome is burning," Rustad said and suggested the inattention is due to the affected areas being located in Liberal-held ridings.

"Quite frankly, that's just completely and totally unfair," Rustad said.

In an interview, Donaldson stressed deployment of community transition response teams to coordinate help for displaced workers.

"We're holding job fairs, we're doing a micro-approach to job opportunities, I have staff looking at what are some of the opportunities that are seeking workers in communities and what's the experience and training needed and are there workers laid off now that are interested in acquiring that and working with local colleges, for instance to provide that," Donaldson said.

"So we're working on a number of fronts to deal with those situations and that's the number-one priority, the immediate response for workers and families."

Rustad dismissed the teams' effectiveness saying they failed to consider the impact on surrounding communities when the Chasm sawmill in 70 Mile House was closed in 2017.

Rustad also made note of District of Fort St. James' council declaration of a "state of financial emergency" this week in the wake of the closure of the Conifex sawmill.

"I've never seen a community do anything like that before but clearly that is a sign that government is not stepping up to the plate and providing some help," said Rustad, the MLA for Nechako-Lakes where Fort St. James is located.

Donaldson said action is being taken through a community transition team.

"We're coordinating with Services Canada, the federal agency, and Work BC, the provincial agency," he said.

As for the consultation, the government issued a consultation paper seeking input on forest tenure and fibre supply; climate change and forest carbon; manufacturing capacity and fibre use;

wood products innovation; reconciliation with Indigenous communities; and fibre and sustainability of timber and non-timber forest values.

It's posted at engage.gov.bc.ca/interiorforestrenewal.

The first engagement session was held in Williams Lake on Thursday.

Sessions are to be held in Burns Lake, 100 Mile House, Mackenzie, Anahim Lake and Terrace during the week of July 21-27, Smithers, Houston, Hazelton, Quesnel, Castlegar, Cranbrook and Revelstoke during August 4-10, Kamloops, Merritt and Williams Lake once again during Aug. 11-17 and Vernon during Aug. 18-24.

Dates and locations are still to be set for for engagement sessions in Prince George, Vanderhoof, Fort St. James, McBride, Chetwynd, Fort St. John and Fort Nelson.

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