Legislation the government says will support forest stewardship and recovery from mountain pine beetle devastation will instead trigger a new battle in the woods as companies compete for diminishing timber supply, says an opposition critic.
Introduced in the legislature Wednesday, the Forest Act amendments will allow for rollover - conversion of volume-based forest licences to area-based tree farm licences at the minister's discretion.
The bill heeds recommendations from a bipartisan committee on timber supply, said Steve Thomson, minister of forests, lands and natural resource operations. They are specifically tailored to weather the impacts of mountain pine beetle infestation in the Interior, he said.
"The legislation introduced today is a milestone and meets key commitments in our mid-term timber supply action plan," Thomson said.
The bill was preceded by a public consultation last summer, which resulted in further refinements, he said.
"This assures supply for licence holders. The limits will ensure they are not over-harvesting."
Thomson and MLA John Rustad, parliamentary secretary for forestry, maintained in a teleconference that companies will be required to publicly consult before they are granted any change in tenure.
They said there are sufficient safeguards in the amendments. Applications for conversion will only be approved by the minister if they are shown to provide a clear benefit to the public. Government also promised that further public consultation on the changes will take place this summer.
Independent MLA Bob Simpson, whose Cariboo North riding is in the centre of pine beetle destruction, takes issue with those contentions.
"This is a government in its 11th hour that's going to pass broad public policy that will decide the outcome of a debate that's been going on for 150 years," he said.
Simpson said there is nothing in the bill that assures public consultation, only public notification, which means companies simply have to publicize their plans.
"I'm not sure if they're lying to themselves on what it is they're doing. It's quite troubling," Simpson said.
"Here's the reality: if that bill is passed, that is the law. There is nothing in the law to ensure that companies will first consult."
While the government says the changes will enable support for First Nations woodland licences, community forests, woodlots and B.C. Timber Sales, Simpson argues otherwise.
"That's patently not true. It takes a particular set of licence holders who hold forest licences and targets them specifically for conversion. This is what we've always called rollover."
He also takes issue with the claim that the bill complies with recommendations of the timber supply committee's report. The report suggested that if the government should take a cautious approach if more area-based tenures are desired, he said.
Simpson said the province needs to step back and first consult provincewide - not only in the region hit by pine beetle - on such a potentially sweeping change in forest tenure.
"When you draw maps on the public land base, it automatically triggers a responsibility to consult."
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