Now that the damage of the mountain pine beetle epidemic is mostly done, the B.C. government is poised to launch a 10-year action plan to figure out precisely what is left of its ravaged forests and what needs to be done to replant them.
Eight months after the province's Auditor-General blasted the government for weak management of its forestry resources, Forests Minister Steve Thomson has secured no new money to address the problem; in fact, his budget is slated to decline over the next three years. But at a news conference on Tuesday, he promised a new strategy early next year to improve the province's timber supply.
"The inventory work needs to be done now that the pine beetle has run its course," Mr. Thomson said.
An infestation of the mountain pine beetle that began in 1999 has devastated millions of hectares of land that had been earmarked for timber harvest in B.C., and the province can't even say how much needs to be replanted because key data on what forests still exist are out of date, in some cases by decades.
However, the Forests Minister also promised new legislation next spring that will give mills guaranteed access to timber.
Critics said the response leaves a looming problem for the next term of government. "All it is is a stall," NDP forestry critic Norm Macdonald said. The government is seeking to squeeze more timber from the land without a solid grasp of what is sustainable, he said. "They are basing decisions on the [harvest] on data that is 30 years old. These cut decisions cannot have integrity."
Next year, Mr. Thomson's budget for inventory and reforestation will be reduced by $30-million. Mr. Thomson said he expects his new plan will require additional resources at some point, but not for several years. "With our existing budget, we believe we have the resources required to undertake the immediate start to implementation."
Mr. Macdonald said that doesn't add up.
"This is our most valuable asset. For all sorts of reasons you have to look after it. You have to make the case to the public, you are likely talking about another $50- to $100-million a year," he said. "If this minister was serious, that's a case he would be willing to make."
The government is expected to release a report later this fall on the state of its reforestation obligations. Last June, the independent Forest Practices Board estimated that the province has failed to restock about two million hectares of land adequately – an estimate made difficult because of the state of the inventory.
The government has been under pressure to free up more timber since a deadly explosion levelled a sawmill at Burns Lake in January. The mill's owners say they will decide in December whether to rebuild, and they are demanding an assured supply of timber in exchange for that commitment.
Bob Simpson, the independent MLA for Cariboo North and a former forest industry manager, said that timeline means the inventory problems won't be addressed until after long-term timber commitments are made.
"Government is now going to pick winners and losers," Mr. Simpson said, "in the absence of the data to understand what is actually happening out there."
But John Rustad, the B.C. Liberal MLA who helped draft the forestry plan, said there was no point addressing the inventory while the pine beetle infestation was raging.
"If you are planning to do some work on your house and a hurricane is approaching, you're not going to undertake that work until you've seen what happens with the hurricane."