Improvement needed in forest management, says MLA

Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald is focusing on how government can do a better job ensuring B.C. forests experience more summers like this one

With a sunny summer that resulted in surprisingly few significant forest fires now coming to an end, Columbia River – Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald is focusing on how government can do a better job ensuring B.C. forests experience more summers like this one.

“We’ve been fortunate with this fire season; it looks like we’re going to get through with very few fires and a limited impact on natural resource dependent communities,” he told The Echo. “But we do know the fuel load is building, and that the sensible thing to do is to protect out communities by doing this thinning and preventative work.”

The province’s wildfire management branch recorded 1,687 reported wildfires for the season as of September 1st, significantly below the B.C. average of nearly 2,000 fires each summer. Despite several  dry weather records being set around the province, this year’s fires burned a total of 11,434 hectares, far less than the average damage of more than 130,000 hectares.

However, the build-up of dead and dry timber around communities continues to be an issue, said Macdonald, who sees too few communities using provincial forest fuel reduction programs to remove dry timber, as Canal Flats has been doing this summer.

“Across the province, I have real concerns about fuel management in the interface,” he said.

“The 2003 forest fire season led to the Filmon report, which identified work that needed to be done. The government set up a program that I don’t think has been cost effective, or has dealt with enough of the work.”

“The model the government uses has dealt with only four per cent of the are that was identified as needing to be treated,” he said.

Mr. Macdonald had a chance to raise other points of concern about forestry during budget estimates meetings held within a five-week legislative session held from late June through July. (No new legislation was passed, as the session was held entirely to complete the budget that was introduced in February. That debate lasted two weeks before the May election was called, shutting down the legislature.)

“There are still clear shortcomings in the BC Liberals’ management of the land base,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, they’ve consistently cut funding to management tools. They’ve allowed inventory to become so dated that it’s really not useful in the way that it needs to be.”

A $40 million from the Forest Stewardship budget in the 2013 provincial budget is one example of that, he said.

“Even though it’s a serious situation that needs addressing, and an all-party committee recommended these investments take place, we’ve moved in the opposite direction,” he said. Mr. MacDonald is also critical of the government’s unwillingness to have forest licensees take responsibility for replanting forested areas that were decimated by fire, wind or disease.

“There is as much as two million hectares that our government prior to 2001 would have had a legal obligation, and now has a moral obligation, to replant.”

In the East Kootenay region, “we’ve been fortunate because of our mixed forest,” he said. “We haven’t been impacted by the pine beetle, and there’s been very aggressive action in cutting whenever the pest appears, and of course the licensees have met with their obligations.”

An upcoming timber supply review for the East Kootenays should offer an opportunity to address the questions around replanting, if a fall legislative session doesn’t occur first.

“We are supposed to sit in October and November, but we’ll see,” he said. “The practice has been to cancel those sessions. From a democratic point of view, it’s a poor decision; the house being in session does give the opposition an opportunity to hold the government to account, which from a public policy point of view is a good thing.”

Government must give at least two days notice before calling a session back, but in practice there’s usually one or two weeks’ notice, he said.