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‘Working Forest’ proposal dead…for now

The provincial government’s plan to set aside between 23 million and 43 million hectares of B.C.

The provincial government’s plan to set aside between 23 million and 43 million hectares of B.C. as "Working Forest" has been taken off the legislature’s agenda this spring after public consultation proved overwhelmingly opposition to the idea.

However, the issue is far from dead. Forests Minister Gordon Wilson still believes in the legislation, and the Liberal Party, which is favoured to win a majority in the pending provincial election, has also voiced its support for a similar plan.

"We have received a great deal of input and comments, and the legislation as it is currently proposed is clearly not ready for consideration by the legislature," said Wilson in a March 14 press release.

When the government announced the legislation on Feb. 22, it invited public comment until March 2 – less than two weeks. After receiving complaints that this was too short a time, the deadline was extended by one week. In that time comments were received from 1,400 people by phone, fax, and through the online comment form on the ministry Web site.

According to the Western Canada Wilderness Committee (WCWC), which has reviewed the comments on the Web site, 98 per cent of respondents were against the proposed Working Forest legislation.

Wilson says he will ask government if his ministry can rework the legislation to make it more acceptable to the public.

"I believe British Columbians want legislation that provides greater certainty for forest jobs and forest communities, and that will only be achieved through dialogue and consensus-building," said Wilson. "I will recommend to the premier and cabinet that government do further work with all parties to set this important issue right."

However, Wilson may not have much time, as an election could be called any day.

For their part, the Liberals say that securing Working Forest legislation will become a priority once they are elected. In a speech to the Truck Loggers Association, B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell told the assembly that "the first thing we must do is designate a working forest land base… large enough to ensure that our social and economic objectives can reasonably be met. A B.C. Liberal government will determine and establish a working forest land base within our first 18 months."

Environmental groups are strongly opposed to the concept, which they believe will in effect prevent the creation any new protected areas and leave taxpayers on the hook to compensate logging companies for any loss of the harvestable land base for everything from First Nations land claims to the creation of new parks, to the protection of watersheds and habitat for endangered species.

The "no net loss" clause is particularly controversial because it means compensation for logging companies in the form of forested land or cash for any land that is removed from the Working Forest.

When Wilson made the announcement that the Working Forest legislation was being pulled for further review, about 400 WCWC protesters were on their way to the legislature in Victoria to rally against the plan.

"The people of B.C. spoke and for once the government listened," said WCWC director Joy Foy. With a provincial election around the corner, however, he said the battle is far from over.

"Gordon Campbell has been a strong supporter of the call from the major forestry multinationals for greater control over B.C.’s public forest lands, We aim to keep mobilizing the public against these anti-public interests before Campbell can introduce similar legislation."

Green Party leader Adriane Carr is also opposed to the legislation on the basis that it is essentially turning a publicly owned commodity over to private interests.

"Why should the B.C. government, which is supposed to protect B.C. assets for working families and communities, give more security and billions of dollars in compensatable rights to corporations that have not shown themselves to be responsible in maintaining forest jobs or healthy forests?" asked Carr.

"The forest industry already has a great deal of security through tree farm licenses and tenures, yet they’ve been shutting down sawmills, increasing their export of raw logs and cheating citizens of fair stumpage payments."

The proposed working forest area of between 23 million and 43 million hectares was determined by subtracting all land from the provincial land base of 95 million hectares that is developed, protected in parks, privately owned, unsuitable or unprofitable for harvesting, or would be left behind as part of approved logging practices.