VICTORIA – What, my more than comfortable businessman friend asked me, did I think of Premier Glen Clark’s Jobs and Timber Accord? I said I liked it.
Wouldn’t it be far better if government stopped meddling in the economy, got out of the way and let business look after things? I said no, explaining as gently as I could, without hurting his sensitive capitalist feelings, that he had better get one thing straight: close to 95 per cent of the trees in this province belong not to the multinational forest companies, but to me, him and every other British Columbian.
I also explained, again very gently, that the forest industry had done a bloody lousy job in the past of making sure that future generations would have enough trees left to cut. In fairness, I added that 100 or even 20 years ago, we didn’t know what we know today, and that the industry, by and large, has been willing to change its ways.
The Jobs and Timber Accord is a remarkable achievement. It is Clark’s first successful attempt to make his mark. If successful, and I believe it will be, the accord will make up for his administration’s budget bungling.
The accord is to create almost 40,000 forest industry jobs over the next four years. The $1.5 billion seed money for the program will come from Forest Renewal B.C. funds which, in turn, come from the industry itself.
The nearly 40,000 jobs – 22,400 direct and 17.400 indirect – are to be created by intensified tree cutting, where possible, more forest restoration, stepped-up silviculture, and requiring existing employees to work shorter weeks, without overtime. To make sure nobody loses out, the government will provide $20 million a year to top up workers’ paycheques.
The accord also involves a boost to secondary industry. Manufacturers of things such as furniture, doors and windows will get up to 18 per cent of the province’s sawed lumber. That alone is expected to create more than 6,500 new jobs.
To ensure that the industry plays ball, there’s a built-in stick-and-carrot provision. Companies that live up to the spirit of the accord and create more jobs will get preferential access to timber. Those who don’t could see their cutting rights curtailed.
The idea to tie timber access to job creation came out if a simple statistic, according to which every other North American jurisdiction records more jobs than British Columbia per cubic-metre of timber cut.
The reasons are many-fold, including difficult terrain and climate, but also mechanization. If possible, and left to its own devices, the forest industry would gladly harvest our trees without having to pay a single employee. Machines don’t get sick, they don’t want paycheques, they don’t need pension plans.
Now, my friend, the Fraser Institute apostle, may not like the accord, but here’s what some of the industry people had to say:
"British Columbians as landlords of the forest resource have good reason to expect a lot from the forest industry." – Jake Kerr, Lignum Ltd.
Ike Barber, president of Slocan Forest Products, said he had made a career out of "unemploying people," but would now try to save as many jobs as he can.
Among the few who aren’t happy with the Jobs and Timber Accord are the militant environmentalists, who have stepped up their demands for protected areas to more than 40 per cent of the province’s land base.
Well, I suppose some people like the idea of shutting down the forest industry and turning chain saws into good-luck charms. Pol Pot thought it was a dandy idea to turn Cambodia into an agricultural society. He failed, but no before the country’s flourishing economy was devastated and a few million people had starved to death.
Mike Harcourt’s achievement was to bring relative peace to the woods. The next couple of years will show whether Glen Clark’s plan works. If it does, he will have brought security to the people who work in the forest and stability to the communities that depend on forestry. Not a bad legacy either.