VICTORIA – British Columbia’s forest industry is in bad shape these days. So is Planet Earth. The question is: how do we nurture both and hurt neither in the process?
The current state of the forest industry is outlined in stark terms in a report to the B.C. Forest Ministry by Perrin, Thorau and Associates, a firm of economic consultants. The report leaves little doubt that the industry is on the skids and may not recover.
"The forest industry has historically been subject to market cycles. There is a growing concern at this point in the current cycle, however, that the industry may have been permanently impaired by increases in wood costs resulting from both higher timber prices (stumpage and royalties) and increased logging costs," says the report.
The state of Planet Earth is described as precarious at best by the Canadian Wildlife Federation in its promotional material for schools on the occasion of National Wildlife Week April 6-12.
"It’s clear we’re gobbling up resources at such a speed that the Earth could lose its ability to fulfill our survival needs. Signs like acid rain, global warming, a damaged ozone layer, and wildlife extinction warn us that our activities are hurting the planet that gives us life," the federation brochure says.
It is this growing realization over the past 15 years or so that we are killing the planet with our activities that has led to stricter controls on what, where and how forest companies are allowed to harvest the publicly-owned timber resource.
In British Columbia, one of the new tools to ensure more responsible and sustainable logging is the Forest Practices Code. But while the advent of the Code was an absolute necessity and its intent highly admirable, there are signs that its rigid and sometimes unnecessarily harsh enforcement may be killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
British Columbia jeopardizes its forest industry at everyone’s risk. It is the largest industrial employer, accounting for 18 per cent of total provincial employment or 100,000 direct and 200,000 indirect jobs.
The forest industry supports about 116 British Columbia communities. Its products account for close to 60 per cent of manufacturing shipments and more than 60 per cent of provincial exports.
In 1995, the industry directly paid $2.8 billion in various taxes to federal, provincial and municipal government. Employees paid another $1.9 billion.
Alas, last year the forest industry lost an estimated $250 million, a dramatic downturn from the two previous years in each of which the industry recorded earnings in excess of $1 billion.
Now, even though I have not logged one tree in my life, that worries me. I like my big companies to be profitable. An industry that loses money consistently will not stay in business, and I’d hate to see a hundred thousand or so people thrown onto the unemployment rolls because the forest industry decides that it can invest its money in more profitable enterprises, probably off-shore.
On the other hand, there is our suffering Planet Earth, and I wouldn’t want the industry to return to its rapacious ways of old.
I am neither an environmental nor a forestry expert. I don’t have the answers. But if I were premier, I would make damn sure my forest minister found the people who do.
This shouldn’t about an ideological tug-of-war between government and industry. This is about the economic health of our province. And it matters not one iota if you earn your living in the woods or slug it our at some office. Without a healthy forest industry that makes a healthy profit, we’re all going to lose.
Like I said, we have to find a way of keeping the forest industry in good shape without sacrificing the environment. It seems to me that’s what we have a government for. And if this government can’t find a way, maybe they should let someone else try.