VICTORIA -- November 23, 1988 could well become a day of infamy in British Columbia. It may be the day British Columbians lost control over much of their land to a foreign multy-national company.
November 23 may be remembered as the day a New Zealand-based forestry giant gained control over a vast land area in north-eastern British Columbia. It may be remembered as the day the Social Credit government sacrificed on the altar of privatization what it should have continued to hold in sacred trust.
On November 23, a hearing in Mackenzie was to determine whether Fletcher Challenge should be granted a Tree Farm Licence, covering the entire Mackenzie Timber Supply Area, a staggering six million hectares or 25,000 square miles of Crown land.
Although their minds are made up, the politicians will probably not announce the final decision for a while. Not wanting to appear unduly eager, the government will allow us a period of mourning.
It is that period which constitutes the last chance, an admittedly slim one, for British Columbians to hold on to what is theirs and tell the government enough is enough.
It all sounds so innocent. Timber Supply Area or Tree Farm Licence. What's the difference? The difference is simply that no sane nation allows its natural heritage to fall into the hands of foreign potentates, be they political rulers of commercial emperors.
British Columbia is about to do just that. By granting Fletcher Challenge the Tree Farm Licence in question, the government will give the company virtually unencumbered control over the land. True, title of land would still be in our name, but the forests that cover its valleys and mountains have become the chattel of foreigners.
According to the South Moresby formula, the value of the Tree Farm Licence is about $2 billion, not a bad little windfall for the New Zealand company. And there is more to come. Another 36 million hectares are at stake.
By the time the government is finished with its forestry privatization plans, it hopes to have transferred some $14 billion in assets from public ownership to a few multi-national corporations.
The fact that this wholesale auction of our forests has gone largely unnoticed by the public is yet another fine example of Parkinson's Law. Large-scale concepts take second place to small ones which are easier to grasp.
While opponents of privatization concentrated their fire on smaller strategic targets such as the sale of tree nurseries, sign shops and highways maintenance, the government was able to proceed virtually unopposed with its far grander scheme of selling our forests.
And what did the guardians of our purse strings get in return for giving up control over the primary resource in an area nearly twice the size of Switzerland? Very little. Aside from paying the going rate in terms of stumpage fees, that would accrue in any case,
Fletcher Challenge has promised to undertake a $3 million upgrade of the existing forest inventory, build a new pulp mill and upgrade five sawmills.
I left out the $22 million the company says it will spend on brushing, weeding and juvenile spacing, because silviculture is now and always should have been the responsibility of the industry, regardless of what tenure it has in the woods.
What a deal, for Fletcher Challenge, that is. Unless the people of British Columbia put a stop to it at the last minute, the company will succeed in doing here what no other nation, including New Zealand, will permit. It will be master of our forests.
Both the government and Fletcher Challenge were, of course, hoping that the public would not become fully aware of the deal's implications. They almost succeeded. Public information was largely kept to a slick little color brochure, featuring little children hugging small trees and talking of "the mosaic values" of our forests.
So what can be done to prevent the plan from going through? A lot, actually. British Columbians could do the same that free-trade opponents did to Mulroney. They could raise bloody hell.
They could send telegrams and letters to Premier Vander Zalm, telling him that B.C. is not for sale. They could tell him that his past mistakes were nothing, compared with what this deal will do to his party, once the public understands its full implications.
They could enlighten the premier and his cabinet about the effects the transfer of control over the forests to multi-national corporations will have on small operators.
When the first Tree Farm Licences were granted in the 50s, hundreds of small forestry businesses were wiped out. The rest became completely dependent on the big companies. Unless the government is stopped, the same fate awaits more of them.
Eat your heart out, Margaret Thatcher. You ain't seen nothin' yet.