A government proposal to keep mills in the British Columbia Interior operating by allowing logging in protected areas could cost the province its environmentally friendly market designation, critics of the plan are warning.
Cabinet documents leaked last week revealed that the government is looking at options to increase timber supply in the Interior, where a pine beetle infestation has killed off so much forest that mills are running out of logs and could be forced to close within a few years, costing 12,000 jobs.
A statement issued on Wednesday by the Ministry of Forests, however, said the documents are not final plans, but "only outline how much additional timber could be made available by opening up scenic areas, wildlife corridors, old-growth management areas."
The statement said no decisions have been made yet, and government staff are looking at the environmental effects that harvesting such areas could have.
"Concerns … about potential loss of third-party certification will no doubt also be a factor to be considered," it adds.
But Bob Simpson, an independent MLA for Cariboo North, said if the government opts to keep mills going by logging old growth, wildlife corridors and other protected areas, it could do more economic damage in the long run than it prevents in the short term.
"The government may be going too far," Mr. Simpson said in an e-mail. "There may be more jobs put at risk than saved if the government causes B.C.'s sustainable forest management regime to be put into question in the world markets."
British Columbia has more certified forest land than any other jurisdiction in the world, with the exception of Canada as a whole. The certification, which is awarded under several different internationally recognized programs, gives the province a "green stamp of approval" for its wood products, which allows greater access to markets in Europe and the United States.
Mr. Simpson said if certification is lost, significant buyers such as Home Depot, which insists on certified wood, would stop taking B.C. lumber.
Jessica Clogg, executive director of the West Coast Environmental Law Association, agreed that B.C. could easily lose its favoured status.
"The proposals that are on the table are thrusting B.C. into this crazy, Lorax-style scenario where we are talking about logging the last little bits of old growth, the last little bits of wildlife habitat that provide even partial ecosystem services in these areas. And there's no question that that runs afoul … of the forest certification system," she said.
Ms. Clogg said the leaked cabinet documents show the government has drawn up scenarios in which protected areas would be logged and the power of the chief forester to stop that from happening would be revoked.
"The notion of politically overriding the chief forester is alarming in itself," Ms. Clogg said.
Sharon Glover, CEO of the Association of BC Forest Professionals, said she doubts the government has the legal right to override the chief forester.
"The only people who are allowed to practise professional forestry in this province, according to the Foresters Act, are members of the Association of BC Forest Professionals," she said. "So … moving any decisions about setting annual cut from the chief forester to the cabinet would violate the Foresters Act. And the reason that you have the chief forester make those decisions is because they are non-political. It is all about science."
Ms. Glover said the leaked cabinet documents are a cause for "deep concern" and the association has asked the government to engage in a dialogue with the public, professional foresters and the communities that will be affected.
"What we're talking about is a discussion that asks is this sustainable forestry," she said. "And we would like to see not consultations in three months but very, very soon."