The B.C. government is not adequately keeping track of its inventory of timber lands, according to NDP Leader Adrian Dix. And that means the province is putting off some tough decisions, he says, on managing what's left of pine-beetle-ravaged forests.
While the mountain pine beetle has been devastating millions of hectares of land earmarked for timber harvest, the government's grasp on what is left of the forest resource is slipping.
A third of the government's inventory of timber lands is at least 17 years out of date, the Ministry of Forests confirms. That makes it impossible to accurately establish the so-called falldown – the point at which mills in the B.C. Interior start to run out of logs after processing today's pine-beetle-killed timber.
"The government's position is they don't know and they don't want to know," said Mr. Dix. "It's absolutely going to devalue the forests for the next generation – it's making the turn we will have to make in forest policy even harder."
At the same time, the province is falling behind on its targets to replant forests ravaged by pests, disease and fire. Last week, a report from the Auditor-General found that the government's reforestation program, Forests for Tomorrow, has replanted a little better than 8,700 hectares a year over the past five years. That's far short of the plan to plant 22,000 hectares a year.
At that rate, it would take 85 years to replant all the land that is known to be due for replanting.
Al Gorley, chair of the independent Forest Practices Board, believes the amount of land that the government should be planting is at least double the amount identified in the government inventory.
"There is a lot of uncertainty. We made an initial estimate of around two million hectares," he said in an interview. The board will deliver a report this spring that aims to confirm the backlog and identify how much really needs to be replanted.
"We're doing it because there seems to be some confusion about the numbers," Mr. Gorley said.
The issue of the timber supply was brought into the spotlight last month after a deadly explosion destroyed the main sawmill in Burns Lake. The mill's owners won't commit to rebuilding unless the government can promise a steady supply of timber.
But the government is expecting a precipitous drop in timber supply in the Interior, according to Ministry of Forests data dated Dec. 31. The "mid-term timber supply" data shows the volume of trees to be harvested dropping by roughly a third over the next two decades.
Bob Simpson, the independent MLA for Cariboo North and a former forest industry manager, said the government needs to restore cuts that were made to the forest service so that it can provide solid answers about the future of the timber supply.
"We can't tell the people of Burns Lake whether logs exist to warrant rebuilding that mill – the government's inventory of the forests is so bankrupt we can't understand what is happening on the ground," Mr. Simpson said. "It's time we surveyed the land base so we can say what is actually available there to support a forest industry in the future."
In a report last week, B.C.'s Auditor-General found weaknesses in the province's management of its forest resource. "Existing management practices are insufficient to offset a trend toward future forests having a lower timber supply and less species diversity in some areas."
The audit found a growing area of under-stocked forest – the province has increasingly relied on nature to regenerate forests wiped out by fire and pests. "These trends suggest that long-term timber benefits and forest resiliency are being eroded."
Forests Minister Steve Thomson disputed the auditor's findings, although in an interview he acknowledged he does not know how big a gap exists between what needs to be replanted, and what hasn't been replanted.
Of the 22 million hectares of forest land that is designated for timber harvesting in B.C., he said the government knows of about 733,000 hectares that are in need of replanting. "That's what we know," Mr. Thomson said. "We agree the number is somewhat higher. But it's all speculation until we do the inventory work. There is work being done to identify additional land that will need reforestation."