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pine beetles

Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson sits on a log in Stanley Park in Vancouver June 6, 2012.Jeff Vinnick

Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson was dubbed "Chicken Little" when he raised concerns about the future of the timber supply in his northern riding because of the mountain pine beetle.

That was eight years ago. In recent months, the B.C. Liberal government has discovered the sky is indeed falling because of the pine-beetle infestation in British Columbia. Politicians and bureaucrats are now scrambling to find a way to feed mills in the Interior and the north.

On Wednesday, a legislative committee met in Vancouver to discuss its options – essentially, to decide which rules will have to bend to keep timber flowing to the sawmills. Restrictions that protect old growth, wildlife habitat and even park boundaries are all on the table in regions where as much as 80 per cent of the potential timber is dead.

From Prince George to Kamloops, the committee heard, the amount of timber that is available to cut is falling. Also, the economic value of the dead timber in some regions is too low to justify harvesting.

In Quesnel, in Mr. Simpson's riding, the timber supply over the next decade is expected to drop to almost a quarter of the present rate. That is not enough to feed the community's mills.

Yet Mr. Simpson isn't endorsing the government's attempts to free up more timber to keep those mills open – he says it simply isn't sustainable.

"Instead of trying to maintain the status quo, the committee should acknowledge the industry is going to downsize," he said in an interview Wednesday. "It should be going out there asking communities, 'How can we help?' "

That approach isn't an easy sell in Mr. Simpson's rural, resource-dependent riding at the centre of the pine-beetle epidemic. In recent weeks, even his constituency and legislature staff questioned if he is throwing away his chance for re-election a year from now.

Some politicians tend to get into hot water for saying things without thinking. Mr. Simpson is more likely to get into trouble by thinking long-term.

When a deadly blast levelled the main sawmill in Burns Lake earlier this year, he encouraged the workers to make a transition to a more sustainable forest industry – perhaps biomass fuel. "You can't be a sawmilling town forever," he said at the time.

And he's taken on the mining industry in a divisive battle in his region, where first nations are trying to stop the development of a mine called New Prosperity. The mine site southwest of Williams Lake is one of the largest undeveloped gold and copper deposits in Canada. Mr. Simpson took up the concerns of the first nations, and accused the company's top officials of being "inflammatory."

Mr. Simpson seems to have a knack for getting under the skin of his colleagues in the legislature. He now sits as an Independent MLA, having had a fallout with his former NDP colleagues over the party's leadership under Carole James. So he is a thorn in the side of government, and sometimes the official opposition too.

He intends to seek re-election as an independent, which rarely is a successful venture in B.C. politics. But in Cariboo North, where he could be in a four-way race with the Liberals, NDP and Conservatives, the incumbent should have an advantage – if he doesn't talk his way out of it.

"We need honest conversations, we need to embrace the reality of what is confronting us, not avoid it," Mr. Simpson said.

But he acknowledged those kinds of conversations run the risk of alienating voters.

"Some of my staff were starting to say, 'Hang on, what are the political implications of this? We're only a year out from the election and if you want to get elected again, you may want to meter this talk,' " Mr. Simpson said in an interview.

"So I did start to second-guess and think about that."

Then he made up his mind and called a meeting with his staff.

"I said, look, I would love to be elected as an independent. I would like to put my name forward to be an alternative to the party systems at the ballot box and be successful doing that. But if I have to do that in a way where I moderate what I say because I'm worried about winning or losing that election, then what's the point? There is no point."