Charbonneau: Forest plan a 'flight of fancy'

Our image of B.C. is so integrated with forests that it's impossible to imagine "the best place on earth" without trees. Verdant forests teem with wildlife. Tree-covered mountains and thicket-ringed lakes occupy our mental landscape.

A recent government report shatters that illusion. The new reality is one with so few trees that lumber mills may have shut down. The report from the Special Committee on Timber Supply says that up to 70 per cent of our interior forests could be decimated by 2021. It's a process well underway.

The report is no surprise to anyone who has eyes to see the rusty remains of what used to be forests. The devastation that the pine beetle has wrought is a nightmare. The grim reality is that beetle infestation, intense wildfires, and unsustainable logging are not just a bad dream.

Not only are British Columbians dreaming of forests past; the committee itself appears to be in denial. Despite the bleak findings of its own report, it sees a bright future in logging if only their recommendations are followed. They imagine a Pollyanna future in which more trees will magically feed the hungry maws of sawmills.

It's time to get real, suggests Ben Parfitt, a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

"The committee astonishingly suggested that there are actually twice as many trees to log in the forests around Burns Lake than what senior forest professionals in government estimated just last year," he writes in the Vancouver Sun.

In a flight of magical thinking, the committee doubles available timber.

Perhaps the committee members can be forgiven; it's just the nature of the beast. Politicians are perennial optimists. Give them lemons and they will make lemonade. Devastate forests, burn down a sawmill, and they will bring back the lumber and rebuild the mill.

It's time to remove the rose-coloured glasses. While the report concedes that beetle-killed wood will eventually rot and become unmarketable, they shy away from the dismal prospects of job loss. Others are not so restrained about the future of the small communities that rely on forestry economies. Two years ago, Central 1 Credit Union predicted that up to 11,000 jobs could disappear in 20 years due to the pine beetle.

Just how do committee members imagine trees will materialize? Here's their plan. First, more marginally economic forests could be logged. But marginal forests are marginal for a reason, explains Parfitt. They are of inferior quality, further away from mills, and more costly to log.

Well then, fertilizer could be applied to the tired old forests to make them grow faster. Who dreams this stuff up? What about the impact on shallow soils, on over-fertilized lakes that become eutrophic, and on wildlife?

And, in a further flight of fancy, they imagine that we could simply cut down old-growth forests that were previously off-limits. We've been down that road before. Not only are old growth forests worth more standing than turned into toilet paper, consumer pressure has forced retail stores not to sell our treasured legacy.

We can have a sustainable forest but not this way. Provincial response to the devastation has been glacial. It's been a decade-long train wreck in slow motion.

Even your humble scribe could see the consequences of the red tide. I wrote in this column in 2005: "We need to get back to basics, the three Rs - research, restoration and reforestation."

Research a commercial species of softwood that is beetle-resistant. Get publicly funded forester's boots back on the ground to work out a plan. Plant the trees and stop prevaricating.

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