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Confidential report warns pine beetle set to destroy B.C. forestry jobs

JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL/JOHN LEHMANN

The full, devastating impact of the pine-beetle epidemic that has swept across British Columbia will be felt in the next few years when up to half the forest-industry jobs in the province's interior will vanish, according to a government report meant to be confidential.

The document, a briefing report for the provincial Forests minister, was inadvertently posted on the internet. It gives details on the unfolding timber supply crisis that threatens "the short and medium-term sustainability" of communities that have depended on logging for generations.

The document suggests possible responses to temporarily blunt the impact of the crisis – including allowing logging in old-growth areas that have long been set aside to protect the overall health of the forest.

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The forest industry has been racing to harvest those dead trees before they lose their value. But the report warns that when the forests killed by the pine beetle are logged out, there will be a period – lasting decades in some areas – in which the amount of harvestable timber available will fall dramatically.

And as the timber supply dwindles, forestry jobs in the B.C. interior will melt away. The current 22,890 jobs across the region could fall to just 10,808 within a few years, a stunning decline of 52 per cent. Prince George alone could lose more than 6,500 jobs.

The document was removed from a site open to the public shortly after independent MLA Bob Simpson asked questions about it Tuesday in the provincial legislature.

Mr. Simpson said the numbers in the document are shocking, and that the report shows the government doesn't have a plan to deal with the crisis, which could see major layoffs begin within 17 months.

"Around 12,000 jobs will be lost and even if they implement all the mitigation they are considering, it is still going to mean 9,000 jobs are lost," said Mr. Simpson.

He said he is concerned that, in desperation, the government will allow logging in protected areas.

But he said that approach would be wrong because it "threatens the long-term health of the forests," while providing a limited number of jobs for a few years.

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"The government is looking at turning forest management on its head because they have done nothing for 10 years to get ready for this," he said.

The report also noted that planned mining and energy infrastructure projects could ease the economic blow to the interior.

Forests Minister Steve Thomson could not be reached for comment.

But Vivian Thomas, a Ministry of Forests spokesperson, said the document was intended for internal use only and it was posted by an employee inadvertently.

"That draft report is just one piece of information that government is looking at before fully engaging with the public. Government expects to be in a position to begin public dialogue within the next couple of months," she stated in a subsequent e-mail.

The report looks at four timber supply areas – Lakes, Prince George, Quesnel and Williams Lake – which stretch across the interior where the pine-beetle infestation has killed huge swaths of forest.

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In the Williams Lake region, for example, the annual allowable cut will go from the current level of 5.7 million cubic metres, to 1.9 million cubic metres. In Prince George it will go from 12.5 million cubic metres to 6.4.

In both locations, states the report, it will be possible to increase the cut temporarily by logging in protected areas – but it cautions that removing old growth, "increases the risk of survival" for some species.

The report states that without mitigation, the timber supply will decline by 67 per cent in the Lakes timber supply area, by 51 per cent in Quesnel, 32 per cent in Prince George and 32 per cent in Williams Lake.

"Regionally these reductions would lead to a timber supply that could support about 53 per cent less employment in the area than pre-beetle," states the report.

The confidential report suggests several possible ways for the government to engage affected communities in dialogue, and notes: "Regardless of the option chosen, a communications strategy will need to be developed. All options require timely action with government decisions required by December 31, 2012 to avoid conflict with May 2013 election."

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