The Province is currently undertaking an ‘area based forest tenure consultation’ to get public feedback on a proposal to convert certain (invited) replaceable volume-based forest licences to new or expanded area-based tree farm licences. The consultation stems from recommendations of a bi-partisan Special Committee on Timber Supply in 2012, which suggested that government should explore the conversion of renewable volume based tenures to area based tenures as one tool to deal with mid-term fibre supply issues in the Interior.
The purpose of this proposal is provide security to companies investing in the Interior, and it also shifts the cost and responsibility to companies to invest in forest stewardship, road construction and maintenance, reforestation, management plans, forest inventories and other resource inventories to manage the licence. Currently volume based tenures (from which the bulk of BC’s harvest derives) must agree to operating areas within a Timber Supply Area, but with a dwindling supply companies are competing for the most viable operating areas, creating uncertainty for long term investment.
The Government agrees that the shift to area based tenure for certain invited licencees would address mid-term supply issues. The Government proposes legislative change to the Forest Act to enable conversion of companies invited to apply, and these companies will be assessed against social (including partnerships to encourage First Nations participation in the forest sector), economic (increased investment in mills etc.) and environmental (meet regulations) objectives. On conversion the licences will be converted to a tree farm licence which is renewable every 25 years.
Former Provincial Chief Forester, Jim Snetsinger, will head the consultation. Any comments must be submitted by May 30, 2014, after which Snetsinger will prepare his recommendations to government. There were three First Nations workshops, in Prince George (May 8), Kamloops (May 14) and Nanaimo (May 20). This consultation is not a formal consultation like that described under Haida. The Province wants feedback on the social, environmental and economic benefits from the conversion, and potential criteria for evaluating applications to area based tenure.
There are acknowledged benefits from having one licencee managing a particular forest and land base, but the concentration it creates can be harmful to regional economies, in particular for small to medium sized licencees who will have less access to particular areas, and new entrants will be further constrained from accessing the market. As well a concentration may impact contractors who will have less leverage with one licencee around pricing. There is also a risk in devolving stewardship to companies who may not have enough capital to maintain certain standards, particularly over the commodity cycles.
Potential impacts for First Nations
The conversion of volume based licences to area based licences will not include most First Nations licencees—80% of First Nations tenures are held in non-replaceable forest licences—this means they are not within the ambit of conversion to area based licences, which are focused only on replaceable volume based tenures.
There are also concerns about the effect of conversion on rights and title, particularly how access will be negotiated and cultural and spiritual areas will be protected by the licencees. Also, what is the potential effect of conversions on treaty rights that have not been finalized, and on First Nations Woodlot licences which have not been completely rolled out?
While invited applicants must display First Nations partnerships to successfully obtain a conversion to area based tenures, there are concerns on the economic effect on First Nations licencees, as well that the consultation processes currently under FRPA will need to be strengthened, and how well will companies respect land use plans that have been developed by First Nations?