Aboriginal governments will become ‘full partners’ as they get control of almost 20 per cent of allowable cut, minister says

GLOBE & MAIL BY JUSTINE HUNTER. Click here for original story.

VICTORIA — The British Columbia government is prepared to almost double the volume of timber-cutting rights for aboriginal communities as part of a plan to remake the province’s beleaguered forest sector.

The plan emerged from a $1-million report on the future of the province’s forest industry, released in Victoria yesterday.

Pat Bell, Minister of Forests, said the changes would make aboriginal governments "full partners" by giving them control, over time, of almost 20 per cent of the annual allowable cut in B.C.

Unlike the majority of contracts that currently grant harvesting rights to native bands, the new tenures will be large and long term, he promised.
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"We’ve been collaborating with first nations to try to develop new forms of tenure to really move forward, to ensure they have the security of supply that’s necessary," Mr. Bell told reporters.

The tenure change is just one proposal that came out of the report from the working roundtable on forestry that was established a year ago to examine what is wrong with the industry.

The report contains 29 recommendations – all of them endorsed by the provincial government – but few of them are expected to help current conditions in the industry, which has shed thousands of jobs.

The government has already promised a "wood first" policy to use B.C. lumber wherever possible for its own construction projects. But the more significant changes are aimed at a future that could be years down the road.

The main focus is an overhaul of the tenure system – which dictates who has the right to cut Crown timber – and the creation of commercial forest reserves "where wood production will be a primary focus."

It would also pave the way for plantations of fast-growing poplar that could be harvested in as little as 10 years.

George Hoberg, a professor in the University of B.C.’s department of forest resource management, said the report shows the government is looking at big changes in the province’s working forests.

"It does suggest an apparent shift toward intensifying industrial production in some parts of the land base and they actually seem to flirt with more private control in those areas," he said.

Mr. Bell was joined by just three members of the 20-member panel, and none of them represented the main tenure holders in the province.

Dave Porter, an influential aboriginal leader who helped draft the report, was one of the participants at the news conference.

"Those recommendations will go a long way toward the objective of ensuring first nations are full partners in a future revitalized forest industry," he said.

Mr. Porter said that he expected the tenure changes would be enshrined in legislation, and he tied the commitment to the provincial government’s promise to enact unprecedented legislation that would recognize aboriginal rights and title in B.C. and set out ways for resource sharing.

He said he is pleased the government has acknowledged that the current system of tenure for native communities is "deficient" because they are too limited for bands to invest in the required tools to use the timber.

"You couldn’t take a five-year [harvesting] licence and interest any banker in putting money on the table," Mr. Porter said.

But Bob Simpson, the New Democratic Party critic for forestry, said the report is flawed because the government does not have an extra 10 per cent of its forestry base to give away to aboriginal communities.

"This report says we are going to continue with log exports, we are going to deepen corporate concentration and we are not going to restore the public benefit from our public forestry resources," he said.