British Columbia

Confidential pine beetle report warns of 'economic and social' havoc

A confidential report by the provincial government warns the mountain pine beetle epidemic could wreak economic and social havoc on communities in British Columbia's Interior and cost the region thousands of jobs in the coming years.

Timber supplies could plummet up to 67 per cent of pre-mountain beetle levels

This image shows extensive damage to pine trees from Mount Fraser near the B.C. and Alberta border. Red trees are either dead or dying from mountain pine beetle infestation. (Wikimedia Commons)

A confidential report warns the mountain pine beetle epidemic could wreak economic and social havoc on communities in British Columbia's Interior and cost the region thousands of jobs in the coming years.

The report says the Prince George, Quesnel, Williams Lake and Lakes timber-supply areas in north-central B.C., are all expected to have sufficient quantities of timber until 2020.

But without a mitigation plan, timber supplies could drop between 32 per cent and 67 per cent in those areas from their pre-beetle levels.

The document prepared by the provincial government and dated Feb. 29, 2012, said the province should consider harvesting smaller trees and logging areas currently managed for their biodiversity, wildlife and scenic values as part of a mitigation strategy.

In Quesnel, we have 1.5 years of commercial timber left

And to avoid a conflict with next year's provincial election, the provincial government should develop a plan to deal with the problem by Dec. 13, 2012, the report said.

"The current mountain pine beetle epidemic in the interior of British Columbia will result in a drastic decrease in timber supply in some areas, with potential for significant economic and social effects to the forest industry and forest-dependent communities."

The report — stamped "confidential draft" — appeared on the government's website until Tuesday afternoon, but was removed after the issue was raised by independent MLA Bob Simpson in the legislature.

"In my area, in Quesnel, we have 1.5 years of commercial timber left, and we may see 1,600 jobs lost if mitigation measures are not taken," said Simpson, an MLA for Cariboo North, during question period.

"But those mitigation measures are highly controversial and will completely change the face of forestry in this province."

Mitigation measures 'highly controversial'

Simpson questioned whether the provincial government is prepared to consult the public on its mitigation efforts.

"The ministry is doing exactly what it should do right now," said Pat Bell, minister of jobs, tourism and innovation.

"They are doing the detailed analysis to determine what the options are. Those options will be presented, and there will be a public dialogue about those options."

The report was written after the Union of British Columbia Municipalities passed a resolution in 2010 calling on the provincial government to take action.

In the short term, from 2012 to 2020, the Lakes, Prince George, Quesnel and Williams Lake timber-supply areas are expected to have "sufficient quantities of timber" to maintain pre-beetle harvest levels, the report said.

But most of that timber is pine and has been dead for five to 10 years already.

Timber supply could drop up to 67 per cent

The report said it's not economical to harvest dead pine over long hauls and said licensees have indicated the economic supply of dead pine varies from 1.5 years in Quesnel to about five years in Prince George.

Without mitigation, the timber supplies could drop by between 32 and 67 per cent, the report said.

"Regionally ... these reductions would lead to a timber supply that could support about 53 per cent less employment in the area than pre-beetle," it said, adding increasing the annual allowable cut in the mid-term could save thousands of jobs in all four areas.

The document provided the Liberals with several options, "assuming the government wants to engage in dialogue."

Among them were suggestions the government establish a parliamentary secretary who would report to the minister and lead the community engagement process or appointing an independent organization to engage communities in a discussion and report back to the government.

"It is not clear how to engage the various First Nations who also have an interest in both the stability of their communities as well as the non-timber values," the report added.

Back in July 2010, Central 1 Credit Union reported the pine-beetle epidemic would cost more than 11,000 jobs in the next 20 years.

But Bell, who was the forestry minister at the time, dismissed those findings, saying they were based on out-of-date information and said, instead, that the industry was poised to gain up to 10,000 jobs in the next decade.

"It's important for the public to understand while this data may have been relevant to 2005-2006, compared to today's employment numbers, we should see employment growth in the forest industry, not decline," Bell said at the time.