By Norm Macdonald, Special to The Tyee.
Secret meetings signal big policy shift not in public's interests: NDP MLA
Last spring, the Liberal government introduced changes to the Forest Act that would have drastically changed the way British Columbia's publicly owned forests are managed. The changes would have “rolled over” existing volume-based cutting rights into corporately-controlled Tree Farm Licenses (TFL), essentially giving private corporations free rein over huge tracts of public lands.
These changes were introduced as one of several elements in a “Miscellaneous Statutes Amendment Act,” the Liberals' trick of attempting to hide legislative changes without drawing too much attention to them. But after tremendous public pressure by environmentalists, forestry professionals, and the opposition, this portion of the act was withdrawn.
The government has signalled their intention to revisit these changes and closed-door meetings have been held through the summer and autumn to implement the same measures that were roundly rejected last spring. The Liberal government does not have a mandate to make these significant changes.
This could be the most important issue currently facing British Columbia's land base.
Losing control of our public assets
Roughly 94 per cent of British Columbia is Crown land, and it's the job of the provincial government to manage these public lands for the public good. Our public lands are worth up to $1 trillion. This is our inheritance as British Columbians, which we should be passing on to our children and our grandchildren.
Over the past 12 years, the BC Liberals have shown they have lost sight of this basic concept. They have failed to put the public interest first when making crucial land-use decisions.
British Columbia's forest lands are not the first public asset that has been given away by the BC Liberals with no consideration of the public good. And we don't have to look very far for another example of a similar giveaway that left British Columbians significantly poorer. Their awarding of private power contracts is an action that is now drastically increasing hydro rates for customers and puts the financial future of BC Hydro in jeopardy.
In addition to massive social and economic costs, losing control of our public assets could significantly hamper our economic future as well. Historically, much of the wealth created in British Columbia came from the forest industry in rural areas. Over the last decade, we have seen a drastic decline in forestry-related jobs, and recently it has been announced that a further two mills will be added to an already extensive list of names of forestry operations that have closed their doors.
The bipartisan Special Committee on Timber Supply, of which I was deputy chair, received hundreds of thoughtful submissions, and based on this input, recommended a walk-before-you-run mindset. The committee was clear that any change in forest practice must be made based on a full understanding of impacts, with access to the best science and data, and always in the public interest. It is with this mindset that we ensure environmental values are met, communities are supported and our forest industry continues to be sustainable.
Meet this test
New Democrats believe that any decision on corporate control of our Crown lands must be proven to be in the public interest. Does it provide economic activity for local communities? Does it create family-supporting jobs? Does it meet environmental standards? Is the public receiving adequate compensation for the resources used?
We don't agree with Premier Christy Clark that an industry that is profitable but rapidly shedding jobs is “all good.” We don't agree that friends and insiders should be the only beneficiaries of government policy. It is our responsibility as citizens to speak up for what we know is right. We need to remember that the only purpose of government, as a representative of the people, is to act in the public interest. Any action that does not meet this test cannot be tolerated.
We have not heard a single convincing argument that there is a public benefit to these changes. British Columbians must insist that this significant change on the land base not proceed until it can be conclusively proven to be in the best of interest of the people.
This op-ed originally appeared in The Tyee: http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2013/12/06/BC-Liberals-Forests-Corporations/