This year marks the 100th anniversary of B.C.'s Forest Act. One might think that a century of regulating some of the most productive forests in the Northern Hemisphere would provide us with forest management policies able to withstand any crisis. After all, forests are the ultimate sustainable natural resource, a legacy that has provided our shelter, food and cultural identity for generations.
But today, our B.C. forests and the economies that rely upon them face new challenges that drive us to seek direction from the forest owners, the people of British Columbia. A royal commission on forestry can discern that direction and set our course for decades to come.
The challenges we face in our forests today are many and significant. In the Interior, the devastating mountain pine beetle outbreak has killed a volume of pine that could equal more than 10 years' harvest of all timber species throughout B.C. The legislature's special committee on timber supply expects that level of pine mortality will eventually result in a 20-per-cent decrease in the total harvest level in B.C. for up to 50 years.
On the coast, high costs and poor domestic markets have resulted in increased log exports, sending jobs and fibre to other markets while some B.C. mills operate at reduced capacity. But log exports and domestic lumber production can share a symbiotic relationship when sales of export logs at premium prices can provide capital for mill improvements or support the cost of logging the rest of the stand, providing logs for domestic lumber production.
At the same time, more coastal operators are adapting to new ecosystem-based forest management regimes developed to support the détente reached between loggers and some of the environmental NGOs after the "war in the woods" of the 1990s.
Internationally, B.C. faces a much lower demand for its lumber in the traditional U.S. market due to the plum-met in housing starts that, at its low point, were down almost 80 per cent from record highs in 2006. The high Canadian dollar has further depressed B.C. wood exports of all types.
But all is not lost. British Columbia is a rare developed economy that has retained public ownership of substantially all of its productive forest land. This level of state control presents the opportunity to respond to changed circumstances by adapting our forest policies. The challenge is to com-ply with international trade laws and agreements and not risk fostering a short-term outlook if business lacks the certainty of knowing it will be able to reap what it sows when the next crop of trees is ready. Sustainable forestry is a very long-term game.
Forest policy in B.C. has already evolved through three distinct phases, each triggered by the report of a royal commission. Early and rampant timber exploitation was addressed by the Fulton Royal Commission in 1910. Fulton's report spawned the first Forest Act and Forest Service, an early form of competitive timber tenure and the first significant efforts toward forest protection and management. Sustained yield forestry arrived in B.C. after the Sloan Royal Commission of 1945 recommended maximizing the yield of timber by carving up the province into public and private sustained yield units.
Finally, the Pearce Royal Commission Report of 1976 recommended efforts to balance industrial forestry with protection of the environment and other social values. An overhaul of the Forest Act was overdue and was accomplished shortly after the Pearce report was released.
Since Pearce in 1976, we have doubled our parks and protected areas and completed or drafted strategic land-use plans covering vast areas of the province. Our Constitution now recognizes aboriginal rights and title, giving first nations a seat at the table and making reconciliation a legal issue when the Crown authorizes forest development that affects their rights. The industry has disintegrated to break up old conglomerates like MacMillan Bloedel and BC Forest Products to form new players that are better focused on narrower segments of the industry but lack broad product diversification and need other tools to weather a storm in their own sector.
We have seen world markets turn against us, and then turn back when we responded with certified forest products as a source of sustainable building materials. We endured years of softwood lumber litigation with the U.S. and its lumber lobby and found only temporary relief by agreement.
New products such as biomass and bio-energy have emerged, and new overseas markets like China have welcomed our forest products as never before. The mountain pine beetle epidemic has shown the risk of climate change to our boreal forests and shaken our faith in the sustained yield theories of the past.
The paradigms we once took for granted have shifted, there are new voices to be heard with new stories to tell. It is time to re-examine our forest policies, determine what British Columbians want from their forests and then design the policy tools to get us there. Small focused steps like the legislature's special committee on timber supply are not enough. After 36 years, it's time for another royal com-mission on forestry in B.C.