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An August 2010 file photo shows a Douglas-fir tree at Avatar Grove along the Gordon River Valley, B.C.

ARNOLD LIM/The Globe and Mail

The provincial government has withdrawn controversial sections of a new bill that opponents claim would have privatized B.C.'s forests after an outcry over a lack of public consultation in the process.

Section 24 of omnibus Bill 8 aimed to amend the Forest Act to allow B.C. foresters to "rollover," or convert, logging tenures from timber supply areas – the current provincial standard – to tree farm licences, a classification that grants leaseholders significantly more control over forests. Tree farm licences would give one company exclusive harvesting rights in an area and the minister of forests would wield sole authority in granting them to forest leaseholders. In a timber supply area, multiple companies might operate, and a limit is set for trees that can be cut.

After the announcement on Tuesday that the amendment would be shelved pending further consultation, Minister of Forests Steve Thomson told reporters that "there needs to be broader public engagement on the intent of the legislation" and that "there has been a lot of misinformation, perceptions, created around what it means."

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The option for tree farm licences existed within the Forest Act until 2003, when it was removed as part of changes to B.C.'s timber pricing system during the softwood lumber dispute with the U.S. The idea to reintroduce the option arose after fire destroyed a sawmill at Burns Lake in January, 2012; Hampton Affiliates, the mill's owner, said it would not rebuild unless the province could guarantee it exclusive rights to harvest the timber in its area.

According to Bob Simpson, independent MLA from Cariboo North, a tree farm licence turns publicly owned forests into private assets that companies can sell, trade and borrow on.

"It amounts to a privatization of public forests that belong to the people of British Columbia," he said. "The land base is still owned by the Crown, but the forest becomes a held asset of a particular company, and there is no obligation to provide any public benefit."

Mr. Thomson said that the withdrawal of Section 24 will not affect the reconstruction of the mill at Burns Lake, to which Hampton Affiliates has already committed. "I've talked to Hampton and I don't think this impacts their investment decision – they'll proceed," he said.

Critics of the proposed amendment called it capitulation to big forestry. "These changes were focused solely on timber supply for timber companies and ignored all the other public values of forests, like environmental, wildlife, cultural, recreation, tourism, water," said Vicky Husband, spokesperson for CommonsBC, a group of activists, researchers and policy analysts that provide information about B.C.'s public lands. "This has been a public betrayal, with no explanation from the government and an effort to make this law before anyone noticed."

But supporters of the amendment argued that it would help keep B.C.'s remaining sawmills in operation and encourage companies to invest more in the long-term management of forests.

Doug Routledge, vice-president of the Council of Forest Industries, who did not endorse or condemn the proposal, said his organization was "very disappointed" that the amendment will be removed. "Everyone keeps saying this is a privatization of forests. It's not. All this legislation was going to do was to reintroduce a tool to our forest management tool kit that has existed previously and has been used previously," he said.

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Mr. Simpson has called for a public inquiry into the state of B.C.'s forestry industry.

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