Old-growth forests, wildlife corridors and other long-protected timber zones in the British Columbia Interior could be opened up to logging in order to keep mills operating, according to a cabinet document detailing a proposal under consideration by the provincial government.
The document, stamped "Confidential Advice to Cabinet," was prepared for Forests Minister Steve Thomson earlier this month.
It proposes shifting forest management from a stewardship model to one that puts short-term economic interests first – but warns that such a dramatic policy change could trigger legal challenges and that it might meet with opposition from B.C.'s chief forester.
Mr. Thomson, who Wednesday said he was concerned that the document had leaked out, said he has been presenting a variety of options to cabinet on the crisis precipitated by the pine-beetle infestation, "but no decisions have been made yet."
He wasn't sure if the leaked document, which wasn't in his possession at the time of the interview, had been presented to cabinet as it stood, or if it was an earlier version that was later revised.
But he said the issues raised in the document are under consideration by cabinet.
"It's to provide awareness around some of the options that are being considered," he said.
NDP Leader Adrian Dix raised the matter in the House Wednesday afternoon, saying: "The submission suggests that the proposals to seek adequate timber supply … would not be possible under current laws and would require, in fact, significant changes to allow it to happen."
But Premier Christy Clark told Mr. Dix the document he had obtained "did not ultimately go in that form to cabinet," although she did not provide any details on the final version.
The leaked document deals with timber-supply problems in the B.C. Interior, where a massive area of forest has been destroyed by pine beetles. Over the past several years, the annual allowable cut throughout the region has been increased, to allow the forest industry to harvest dead trees before the wood loses its commercial value.
B.C. government projections show that after the timber killed by pine beetles has been logged off, a major shortage of harvestable trees will occur, starting within two years and lasting for as long as 50 years.
In some regions, the amount of harvestable trees will fall by 75 per cent, causing mill closings and the loss of up to 12,000 forest-industry jobs.
A fire in Burns Lake this winter exacerbated the problem by destroying a mill the company said won't be rebuilt without a secure supply of wood.
"Hampton Affiliates Ltd. requires government assurance of an adequate … timber supply before it will invest in rebuilding the Babine Forest Products sawmill," states the cabinet document.
To find more timber for mills, the government has been looking at allowing logging in areas that have long been protected.
The document warns such an action "would be a deviation" from the policies followed by the chief forester.
"There is some risk that the independent chief forester of the day may not agree with this action, or of a legal challenge if he/she does," it states.
Ben Parfitt, an analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, described the document as "shocking" because it proposes casting aside the stewardship approach and overruling the authority of the chief forester.
He said a proposal to log protected areas will preserve some jobs for a few years, but eventually the timber supply will collapse, and the jobs will be lost anyway.
"If you go that route, you lose wildlife corridors, you lose biodiversity and you end up with a grotesquely compromised land base," he said.
Vicky Husband, a leading environmentalist in B.C., said the document shows government is contemplating drastic measures that would do long-term damage to the forest.
Independent MLA Bob Simpson said the public should not have to learn from leaked documents that such significant changes are being contemplated by government.
"It is time to get public consultation going on this," he said.