Rebalancing forestry

When the doors opened at the Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George in October 2014, the six-floor, nearly 30-metre tall structure was the tallest contemporary wood building in North America.

It took just two years for that record to be smashed when an 18-storey building made mostly of wood was erected at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

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Such a milestone was unthinkable a decade ago. It is a reality today thanks to the foresight of many people in the forest, engineering and architectural design communities and government encouragement (the province recently granted $2.25 million to fund tall wood building design at UNBC).

But as the record book for towering wood structures was rewritten here in B.C., records of a more dubious sort were being set in the province's forests, which are ultimately what make tall wooden buildings possible.

More than 10 years ago, the provincial government ordered big increases in logging rates across much of the interior of the province. The increases were approved on grounds that forests had to be quickly "salvaged" to log trees killed by mountain pine beetles. In many B.C. regions, more logs flowed into local sawmills and more lumber was pumped out than ever before. A world record was even set for lumber output at one sawmill in Houston, owned by Canfor.

But the logging and milling frenzy, along with alarming amounts of usable wood waste left behind at logging operations, carried risks. Local elected leaders knew that was the case and they told the provincial government as much. The longer escalated logging rates continued, the more rapidly local forests would be depleted and the steeper the future costs to local communities would be.

In community after community, we now see the consequences. Mills have closed or soon will. The most-recent community hit with that news is Merritt, where 200 sawmill workers recently lost their jobs due to a shortage of wood.

In the Prince George Timber Supply Area, the largest forest in the province, the current estimate is that logging rates must decline by half because of years of unsustainable logging.

Obviously, a rebalancing is in order. But that is not enough. We need the province to show leadership and vision, just like the people behind those tall buildings did.

A good place to start is to acknowledge the obvious: Not all forests are the same. Nor are the First Nations and rural communities that those forests surround. Yet for far too long a cookie-cutter approach has been used to manage our forests, one that consistently fails to acknowledge local realities. It's time that changed.

So instead of the province ruling by decree, how about doing what former Forests Minister Bob Williams suggests and devolve some powers to new regional management boards. Such boards could be jointly managed by local communities and First Nations. Board members could consider not just how many trees are logged in a given year, but how to nurture them to protect local water supplies, reduce the threats of catastrophic wildfires, maximize economic benefits to local First Nations and communities and fully tap into their unparalleled potential as the places we love to hike, bike, ski and recreate in.

Instead of using a completely outdated system to determine how much logging companies pay the provincial government for trees logged on public lands, how about requiring that all logs within defined regions be delivered to regionally managed log yards? Yards where new jobs are generated and where local people sort and grade logs before they are auctioned to the highest bidders?

How about turning these increased public funds derived from our logs over to those regional management boards to fund their operation and to allow them to work with local industry leaders to devise new local, value-added forestry investments?

And how about the province reconsidering how it sells a portion of publicly-owned timber by reinstituting an auction system that requires companies bidding on wood to have firm, value-added manufacturing plans?

We are long past due for a shift in thinking about how our forests are managed.

On the eve of a provincial election, we all deserve to hear from those seeking elected office about their vision for our forests.

What would they do to improve the health of our forests and to ensure that communities and regions have new powers to shape their forest futures?

Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and author of From Disenfranchised to Revitalized: Ten Proposals to Set our Forests and B.C'.s Rural Communities on a New Course. He is part of the Stand Up for Our Jobs, Forests & Communities event at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George on Monday at 7 p.m.

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