Forests Minister Steve Thomson says the Liberal government is taking another shot at giving forest companies more rights to control British Columbia's public forest lands, but he rejects criticism that the plan would privatize provincial forests.
The move could dramatically change the way public forests are managed by granting lumber companies tenure rights, or logging rights, to large pieces of land. Companies are currently allotted timber harvest rights on a specified numbers of trees.
The proposed changes prompted immediate scorn from an environmental group and skepticism from the Opposition New Democrats.
"We're going to go totally to the wall over this one," said Ancient Forest Alliance spokesman Ken Wu. "The large forest companies have too long been special interest groups over our public forest lands."
Plans to amend the Forest Act last year to move towards area-based tenures were dumped after a public outcry.
Thomson announced a consultation program Tuesday that will consider public and industry opinion over converting forest land management to area-based tenures from its current volume-based tenure system.
The minister said area-based tenures will not be province-wide, moving only to areas where there is public approval.
Public input accepted until May 30
He appointed Jim Snetsinger, a former B.C. chief forester, to oversee a two-month consultation process, with a report and recommendations due June 30.
Snetsinger will hold public hearings in 10 communities. Comments are also being accepted online until noon on May 30.
Forest tenures or licences are agreements between the government and a person or company to provide logging rights on Crown land. Tenure holders must make payments to the government for timber harvested on Crown land.
Thomson said moving to area-based tenures will give forest companies more certainty over the land on which they harvest timber. He said the government still owns the land, but the companies would have long-term management rights.
"This only gives them timber-harvesting rights to the area as they currently have with volume-based licences," he said. "This is not privatization and not transferring rights to that area to the land holder other than those harvesting rights."
Thomson said last March when the Liberals shelved the changes that they require broader public consultation.
Wu said the only certainty British Columbians can expect from land-based tenures for forest companies is environmental destruction.
Opposition NDP forests critic Norm Macdonald said he understands why companies want to control forest land, but the government will have a tough time convincing the public to support the changes.
"Why the public would buy into this is beyond me," he said. "They have not made the case that this is for the public good. If this is a sales job, that's a problem."