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Op/Ed: It’s time for forestry to benefit British Columbians not multinational companies

There was a time when securing a good-paying forestry job in British Columbia.

By Bob Williams

There was a time when securing a good-paying forestry job in British Columbia was not just an option but an expectation for many.

This was a time when the provincial government took an active role in managing our public forests and overseeing the activities of private companies whose workers cut trees, milled wood and made pulp.

All that started to change in the mid 1970s and from 1990 to 2014 the number of mills decreased significantly and communities that thrived with a forest economy experienced severe economic decline.

BC’s forest industry today is a shadow of what it was in the post-war period and it doesn’t have to be this way I believe from my five decades experience with the industry, including as minister of forests in the Dave Barrett government.

A system of regional-based forestry would best serve British Columbians, our forests and forestry-dependent communities. In recent years I travelled to such communities on Vancouver Island, the Interior, the Kootenays and along the coast with two registered professional foresters and a land planning researcher to examine the state of BC forests and speak with people who took control of local forests and forestry operations in order to protect valuable public resources for future generations and to create jobs today.

Right now we have an industry that for the most part is in the cheap commodity lumber business, and we don’t have the data to make the necessary changes.

We no longer have annual reports from the forests ministry, we no longer have a Forest Service and we no longer have adequate reporting from either the public or private sectors.

But if the provincial government again took responsibility for our public forests and didn’t let them be operated like private land holdings, this iconic BC industry could again thrive and create economic growth and improve equity and fairness throughout the province.

To do this, regionally based forestry must be governed by a BC Forest Charter (with a Forester General) passed by the legislature that includes an overall vision for the province, sustainability principles, standards and goals for this valuable public resource. This would correct the mistake we made decades ago of giving oversight of our public forests to corporations.

The number of mills closed and jobs lost since the early 1990s and the unprecedented number of raw logs exported from BC from 2013 to 2016 — 26 million cubic metres — demonstrate why we need to do forestry differently.

Change is also needed because of our failure to deal honourably with First Nations who have borne the burden of decades of misguided forest policies. Regional management would allow First Nations to participate in planning processes as equal partners, which is not only vital but the direction in which courts are telling us we must go.

Such change may seem radical, but if future generations of British Columbians are to benefit from one of our province’s greatest natural resources, change is needed now.

Bob Williams has been involved with BC’s forestry industry for five decades, including as Minister of Lands, Forests and Water Resources in the Dave Barrett government. He just released the report “Restoring Forestry in BC: The story of the industry’s decline and the case for regional management” with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.