Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Province’s forestry troubles will require help from all sectors. But is talking all that there is to offer?

With the forest industry in British Columbia suffering some of its most dangerous threats in its history, the Premier has chosen to go the roundtable approach to try and come up with answers for forest dependant community’s province wide.

Gordon Campbell announced the formation of what has been called a Working Roundtable on the Forest Industry last week, and will involve cabinet ministers and MLA’s as well as industry and union officials.

It’s the latest offering from the province in a number of years of forestry related themes delivered at forestry events, all of which seem to have had no effect on the downward spiral of the industry.

The troubles in the forest industry have been building as long as the Premier has been in office and in fact go back many years beyond that, with warning signs that all was not well having long been transmitted. Despite much government attention through the decades, there somehow never has been the “right” answer to address the troubles and return the industry to semblance of health.

The Premier’s approach to problem solving now seems to be to talk the issues to exhaustion. Or as Vaughn Palmer of the Vancouver Sun put it in his insightful Vancouver Sun article, Got a troubled industry? Campbell's got a roundtable.

The latest efforts to rebuild, renew and retrench the forest industry is the Working roundtable, hopefully not a place where a lot of dead wood gathers to grow moss, while the province’s once economic engine continues to show massive numbers of jobs lost.

The Daily News featured a review of the plans with a story on the issue in Tuesday’s paper.

Brain trust getting to grips with forestry problems
By Leanne Ritchie
The Daily News
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Pages one and two

Representatives from the Northwest, including rural MLAs, should get a chance to tackle the challenges facing the region's ailing forest industry as part of a new Working Roundtable.

Announced by Premier Gordon Campbell last week at the 65th Annual Truck Loggers Association Convention, the Working Roundtable on Forestry will conduct a review of government's forest regulations and provide new financial supports for forestry workers.
In a speech, Campbell emphasized that government alone can't solve the industry's problems.

It needs to work with industry, communities, unions and others to find ways to help B.C.'s bedrock industry survive, he said.

“We are going to work with industry, with communities, with labour and other stakeholders to find mitigation and adaptation strategies that will ensure or forest industry survives and thrives in the decades to come,” said Campbell.

“Global warming, the pine beetle epidemic and increasing economic pressures are the kinds of challenges the Working Roundtable on Forestry will address.”

The Working Roundtable on Forestry will be chaired by Forests and Range Minister Rich Coleman and include the Minister of Agriculture and lands, Pat Bell, rural MLA’s, forest industry representatives, including the TLA, First Nations, academics, organized labour, and environmental organizations.

In the Northwest, the forest industry has been on a downward slide for the past eight years.
In the first part of the decade, Skeena Cellulose closed its doors, putting more than 1,000 people out of work and any attempts since to restart the pulp mill have failed.

More recently, in October of last year, the remaining West Fraser sawmill in Terrace announced it would be closing, laying off 80 hourly workers and 20 salaried staff members, because of the high Canadian dollar and softening U. S. housing market.

With no processing options available, the provincial government has expanded the number of raw logs that can be exported from the North Coast in order to help keep harvesters working.

However, the lack of processing facilities has also created other problems. In a report released last week by the Forest Practices Board, the failure of the processing industry in the region has resulted in a situation where companies are cherry-picking the valuable timber out of the forests, without any plans to replant the trees, essentially making the areas uneconomical to harvest in the future.

Campbell said B. C., isn’t immune to the problems facing forest industry everywhere, however there are options to expand the province’s market beyond the U. S., which would provide more stability that currently exists.

“What I’m talking about today is that we don’t want to put ourselves in a position where that is always the case,” he told reporters.

Campbell welcomed the possibility of free-trade agreements with Korea, India, the European Union and Japan.

That would mitigate some of the challenges due to the downturn in the U. S. housing industry and the economy, he said.

“But Canada is going to feel the impacts of downturn in the U. S.,” Campbell said.

The roundtable announcement comes on the heels of more B. C. mill closures and the province’s chief forester wondering out loud whether B. C.’s Crown timber lands should be privatized.
Campbell said he can’t tell forestry companies what to do.

“I know that everyone would like the government to do that for them.

Frankly, the challenge is too big for the government to just step in and fix,” he told reporters.
He said British Columbians must stop thinking of forests as “simply a commodity.”

The roundtable will undertake an exhaustive review of all facets of the forest industry and report quarterly to cabinet on ways to expedite workable improvement in that industry. It will meet in communities across British Columbia. The make-up of the roundtable will be announced within the next few weeks, along with its specific terms of reference.

With files from Canadian Press.

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