Logging companies look to flip forests in B.C.

For decades, according to forest ecologist Herb Hammond, private logging companies have enjoyed access to Crown timber through tree farm licences. Hammond noted that in exchange for combining private forestlands with public timber lands, these firms also received generous tax breaks and government funds through various forestry programs.

Now that some forest companies want to convert private forestlands into lucrative real estate, it’s time for them to pay back, suggested Hammond, a director of the Slocan Valley–based Silva Forest Foundation.

“At a minimum, in my opinion, they should be charged back taxes with interest on all of those lands,” Hammond told the Georgia Straight. “And they should refund all monies that were paid to them with interest for carrying out forestry practices on those lands. If the government really has the public interest at heart, they would take that step.”

B.C.’s auditor general, John Doyle, recently released a report stating that when then–forests and range minister Rich Coleman approved the removal of 28,283 hectares of private forestlands by Western Forest Products from three TFLs on Vancouver Island in 2007, it was done “without sufficient regard for the public interest”.

In his report, released on July 16 this year, Doyle stated that the removal, which will allow WFP to sell the lands for residential development, “put greater weight on assisting the licensee’s financial structuring than on other public interests”.

Doyle also noted in his report that the WFP donated $60,470 to the B.C. Liberal party between 2005 and 2007. Citing Forests Ministry estimates, the auditor general reported that the value of the land, once removed from the TFLs, is $150 million. Doyle didn’t mention that Coleman’s brother is an executive in the company.

More private forestlands are being eyed by two other timber corporations for real-estate development, according to a report authored by Ben Parfitt, a resource-policy analyst with the Centre for Canadian Police Alternatives.

Released on July 16, the same day Doyle’s report came out slamming Coleman’s decision on the WFP land removals, Parfitt’s paper noted that TimberWest stated in its 2007 fourth-quarter report that up to 54,136 hectares of its private forestlands are “more suited for other uses”.

Another company, Island Timberlands, reported to its shareholders that 13,584 hectares of its private forestlands are “suitable for higher and better uses”, Parfitt wrote.

Ray Zimmerman, a director of the Sea-to-Sea Greenbelt Society, illustrated the extent of the land removals approved by Coleman for WFP. In one TFL at the south end of Vancouver Island, 12,000 hectares were removed, which is five times as large as the City of Victoria. According to Zimmerman, the WFP has also made subdivision applications for an area one-and-a-half times the size of the municipality of Oak Bay.

“It’s completely contrary to the provincial government’s climate-change policy,” Zimmerman told the Straight from Victoria. “They’re asking us to drive less, walk more, use less energy, and all that kind of stuff. Well, they’re giving the right to a forest corporation to spread sprawl.”

In separate phone interviews, Hammond and Victoria-based forestry expert Ray Travers agreed that the removal of private lands from TFLs ends the “social contract” that corporate timber interests had with the public. What this contract means is that these companies were expected to maintain their properties as forestlands in exchange for the benefits they derived from public forests.

Hammond recalled that for the past 30 years, he has been advocating reforms in forest tenure, foremost of which is giving control of public forest lands back to public servants, who would decide such things as putting up timber stands for auction.

“The way forestry is set up in this province, all the key decisions are made by industry,” Hammond said. “This ability to remove private lands at your whim from a tree farm licence is yet another symptom of how much industrial control there is.”

Travers, who heads his own forestry consulting outfit, suggested that TFLs be transferred from timber companies to parties that are willing to go into producing products of higher value other than lumber and log exports.

“What has to happen is we’ve got to transform the forest industry from a volume-based to a value-based industry,” Travers told the Straight.

Travers noted that although B.C. has a significant share in the more than $6-billion American market for softwood lumber, the province gets only four percent of the more than $12-billion U.S. market for value-added wood products.

“In Canada, when we think of wooden furniture, what do we think of?” he asked. “IKEA. What’s IKEA? It’s a Swedish company. Why should Canadians be flocking to buy their wooden furniture from an importer like IKEA? It makes no sense at all.”

Pat Bell, who succeeded Coleman in the forests portfolio, wasn’t available for comment by Straight deadline on what action the ministry will take with respect to the auditor general’s report.

Although Doyle didn’t make a specific recommendation, NDP Alberni-Qualicum MLA Scott Fraser told the Straight that the “logical next step would be to reverse the [Coleman’s] decision based on the auditor general’s findings”.