Forest sector needs attention

Provincial government plans to diversify British Columbia's resource-based economy by developing markets and exports for liquified natural gas, a project which seems to have dominated cabinet thinking in recent years, is all well and good. But in attempting to realize any dream of future diversification, nobody should lose sight of the pragmatic reality of where our current prosperity has its foundations.

The Council of Forest Industries reports an estimated total economic output from B.C.'s forest sector of $31.4 billion, which generates revenue for federal, provincial and municipal governments on the order of $2.5 billion. The forest industry, it says, sustains 145,800 full-time equivalent jobs in B.C. - about one out of every 16 in the province - and its primary manufacturing sector accounts for 24 per cent of direct manufacturing employment. Small wonder that 40 per cent of the province's regional economies - the economies that help sustain Metro Vancouver's - are forestry dependent.

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So when the Truck Loggers Association, which is responsible for 90 per cent of the harvesting in coastal forests, released its recent survey detailing what mayors in 27 forest-dependent coastal communities think about the direction of forest industry after a decade of massive restructuring, we hope everyone took sharp notice -- especially the provincial government.

In 2004, when the first survey was done, the association found that 88 per cent of community leaders were optimistic about the future of coastal forestry in B.C. Today, only 56 per cent share that same optimism. Provincial policy changes - which resulted in consolidation of forest harvesting tenures, the closing of mills to increase efficiency in saw-milling and the manufacturing of pulp and paper and environmental deregulation - have not yielded as much positive impact on coastal communities as expected, the association reports.

"Today," says the report, "62 per cent of community leaders surveyed feel that the forest industry is in worse shape today than it was a decade ago."

This should trouble everyone in the province and particularly the provincial government and its cabinet, which approved and oversaw many of these changes.

Prospects are not all gloomy, of course. Many community leaders say recovery in the forest products market, which was depressed by the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the U.S., has renewed hope in their communities. And there's strong support for First Nations involvement in the coastal forest sector, which is recognized as a generator of new opportunities an business and employment since the last survey was taken. Job loss continues to be a concern but offsetting that are projections that the forest industry will provide 4,700 job openings by 2022.

Yet if there's a succinct takeaway from this valuable and insightful study, it's that nobody should take the forest industry for granted. So if the mayors of many of these communities are flagging concerns about the future, it would be wise of the provincial government to pay very close attention. And rather than blaming the messenger or pooh-poohing the concerns, to thank both the Truck Loggers Association and the mayors for drawing it to their attention.

-- Vancouver Sun

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