British Columbia Forest Industry Feels the Squeeze

Stricter tree-cutting laws force companies into more environmentally friendly practices

BRITISH COLUMBIA'S powerful forest industry is under fast-growing pressure from government, environmental groups, and international markets to make its tree-cutting practices more environmentally friendly.

Provincial Premier Michael Harcourt announced earlier this month a new provincial ``forest practices code'' that would impose fines of $1 million (Canadian; US$750,000) or more on companies if they violate tree-cutting regulations.

``It's no longer the case that they [the forest companies] should follow good forest practices. They must follow them,'' Mr. Harcourt said in announcing the clampdown on the $15 billion industry that employs 90,000.

The practice of leveling every tree in swaths of one hundred acres or more - called clear-cutting - has been standard for decades in British Columbia, where government and logging companies have worked closely to ``harvest'' public forests.

That routine was challenged in April after a government plan to permit the logging of thousands of acres of old-growth coastal rain forests on scenic Vancouver Island brought a howl of protest.

Since then, more than 800 protesters have been arrested trying to block logging trucks entering Clayoquot Sound, a remote area of the island with tall trees more than 1,000 years old. Though logging continues, an environmental boycott threatens multibillion-dollar exports.

Although the province already has hundreds of tree-cutting rules on the books, the current maximum fine is $2,000. Some companies have been fined scores of times without apparent effect.

``The attitude was that forests were there to be exploited,'' Harcourt told reporters. ``It was cheaper to harm the environment than protect it.''

The new code would allow inspectors to halt logging if they find violations, order cleanups, or ban companies from cutting.

``This is probably the most positive thing we've seen from the government yet,'' says Valerie Langer, who heads the Friends of Clayoquot Sound, an environmental group. ``One of the main problems with the new code is that enforcement is at the minister's discretion. It doesn't allow the public to become a watchdog.''

Industry officials say they welcome a new code but voice reservations about enforcement and compliance assessment.

``We do support the development of a code - a code that provides for truly independent third-party audits of our performance. And not only our performance, but the government's as well,'' says Brian Gilfillan, vice president of forestry at the Council of Forest Industries, a provincial trade group.

Mr. Gilfillan says his group has not seen details of the new code and questions its impact on the industry and taxpayers if new restrictions result in employment cutbacks and loss of revenue. ``They haven't told us what the cost will be, or what the impact will be on BC's global competitiveness,'' he says.

Provincial exports are threatened by pictures of vast clear-cuts that shock Europeans. Circulated by environmental groups such as Greenpeace, these aerial photos have given currency to the charge that British Columbia is a ``Brazil of the North,'' where ``an acre of forest is clear-cut every 12 seconds.''

PUBLIC pressure is growing in Germany, where the news media recently featured stories on Clayoquot. Prominent European environmentalists were arrested Nov. 10 while trying to block logging there. Germany is the leading consumer of British Columbian paper and pulp in the $1.5 billion a year European market.

Harcourt's crackdown on the industry comes amid a flurry of proposals on what to do with Clayoquot and within days of a new forest industry counterattack on the environmental campaign.

At an industry press conference earlier this month, spokesmen for the B.C. Forest Alliance said it had sent a research mission to Brazil. Spokesmen said the environmentalists had overblown the problem in Brazil and that comparisons between the two countries were dubious.

Newly elected Prime Minister Jean Chretien stepped into the fray last month during his campaign, saying all of Clayoquot should be turned into a park. Lately, however, Mr. Chretien has waffled on the issue, saying it is up to the province whether the area should be a park.

Harcourt rejected the notion of making the entire Sound a park, saying it would involve millions of dollars in compensation to logging companies as well as losing millions in provincial revenue.

Sentencing of demonstrators has been widely viewed as unduly harsh, with many getting 45 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. Last month the government issued a letter that seemed to absolve it of responsibility for sentencing. The move met with heavy criticism.

Complicating the issue further are the claims of three native tribes, known in Canada as First Nations, who account for 43 percent of the Sound's 2,000 residents, outside of the logging community of Ucluelet. The largest tribe, the Tla-o-qui-aht, hopes to establish legal possession of two key areas in the Sound: Flores Island and Clayoquot Valley.

``What we are seeking is an expanded land base ... so we can pursue our own economic development,'' says Francis Frank, negotiator for the Tla-o-qui-aht.

Mr. Frank says the tribe is opposed to clear-cut logging, which destroys the forest habitat central to native cultural practices and to fishing and tourism. He has met with advocates of ``ecoforestry,'' methods of harvesting timber without destroying forest habitat.

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