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Mixed messages as Working Forest Legislation withdrawn

The future of the B.C. government’s proposed Working Forest legislation is uncertain after Forest Minister George Abbot acknowledged that plans to legally designate almost half the land base of B.C. as Working Forest would not go to ahead.

Abbott told Ken Wu of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee that "there will be no Working Forest Order-In-Council" to formalize the legislation, but said the general concept will survive.

"The Provincial Forest designation will remain," explained Abbott, "we’ve listened to public concerns. The Working Forest actually perfectly coincides with it."

In a July 29 press release, the province stated that the Working Forest policy will bring jobs and investment to B.C., and that the province would implement the policy using existing planning tools, including regional land use plans, the Provincial Forest designation, and the new Forest and Range Practices Act.

"Resource communities and the forest sector have told us they need a stable, sustainable forest harvest base to support investment and jobs for forest workers and their families," said Abbott. "Just as we have parks and protected areas to preserve the special places in this province we also need to protect the working land base, and the communities and thousands of families whose livelihood depends on forest use."

Gwen Barlee, the policy director for the WCWC, says she had to read the government release three times before she realized that the provincial government was backing down on plans to legally enact Working Forest legislation.

"The important thing that happened is that the provincial government said it would use existing tools to achieve its goals, but this Working Forest won’t be implemented, which is wonderful news," said Barlee. "While the Working Forest still exists, it’s really in name only. There’s no legislation or Order-In-Council, and the provincial forest system remains intact."

During the public consultation period, more than 32,000 people wrote letters or otherwise expressed their opposition to the Working Forest. The government acknowledged that 97 per cent of comments were against the legislation, and of the remaining three per cent some of the comments were ambiguous – neither for or against.

"They government backed down. There was so much opposition to (the Working Forest) and it was too close to an election to go ahead anyway and ram this down people’s throats," said Barlee.

"This way they get to show that they’re responsive to the public will, and by saying they’re going to keep it (the Working Forest) alive through existing planning tools, they get to save face with the forestry industry as well.

"We’ll be watching them like hawks to make sure they don’t try to sneak anything through. Eternal vigilance is the price of democracy, so that’s what we’re going to do."

Although Working Forest legislation is no longer on the table, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee is continuing its campaign against the program until the province gives its assurances that the concept is being scrapped.

"If the working forest is no longer up for legislation, then we want to see (government) drop the entire idea. As long as they’re still talking about it the potential exists that they could put it into play. If the Liberals win another huge mandate for their second term, then they could just resurrect it from the ashes."

Barlee says the government’s decision shows that grass roots campaigns do work.

"It goes to show that people can make a difference and not to be too cynical. People took time out from their busy lives and wrote letters, signed petitions and called their MLAs, and that’s why (government) backed off," she added.

According to Abbott, the public consultation showed that most stakeholders share the goals of the Working Forest legislation, including maintaining public ownership of Crown forest lands; maintaining forest values to protect water quality, recreation, fish and wildlife; respecting local Land and Resource Management Plans; logging at sustainable levels. According to the WCWC, all of those goals are achieved under existing laws and regulations, and therefore no new legislation is needed.

The Working Forest policy was originally tabled by government as a way to provide more certainty to industries by setting aside almost half of the provincial land base – 45 million of 95 million hectares – for forestry, mining, recreation and other forest users.

Because of the large number of parks created in the province over the last decade, the province says resource industries were hesitant to invest in the province.

The WCWC and other conservation groups believe that Working Forest legislation would open the door to real or de facto privatization of public lands, while ensuring that no new protected areas could be created without compensating stakeholders with money or land.

The provincial government denies they have any plans to allow for the privatization of forests or that the Working Forest policy would have any impact on existing land use plans. Under current laws, tenure holders are already entitled to some compensation if land is taken back for any reason, including the creation of parks.