04/18/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 06/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Report warns of economic, social impact from B.C. pine beetle epidemic

VANCOUVER - The mountain pine beetle epidemic has chewed the guts out of British Columbia's forest industry and up to 12,000 jobs are in danger of disappearing within five years, says Independent MLA Bob Simpson, citing a confidential government report.

"If they don't do anything, the government documents show it's 12,000 jobs," said Simpson. "If they relax a whole bunch of land-use plans, it's still 8,800 jobs that they lose."

A draft of the government's mid-term timber supply project warns of economic and social havoc on communities in B.C.'s Interior.

The Feb. 12, 2012 report discusses a mitigation strategy that includes the province considering harvesting smaller trees and logging areas currently managed for their biodiversity, wildlife and scenic values.

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 Simpson in the legislature.

The report, which focuses on the Lakes, Prince George, Quesnel and Williams Lake timber-supply areas, was written after the Union of British Columbia Municipalities passed a 2010 resolution calling on the provincial government to take action.

In the short term, from 2012 to 2020, the four 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.

"Those areas are going to run out of commercial timber," Simpson said. "They're going to start running out of logs. That's where the guts of your forest industry is right now."

Simpson said during question period in the legislature his hometown of Quesnel is down to about its last 18 months of timber supply and 1,600 jobs are in danger unless mitigation measures are taken.

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

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 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.

Simpson said he suspects the government is developing a plan to rebuild the Interior industry without consulting stakeholders.

"This has to come into the public domain," he said. "It's not some backroom discussion where Pat Bell gets the lead."

Simpson said the government needs to attack the pine beetle fallout in the Interior with the same gusto it's devoting to help the community of Burns Lake where an explosion earlier this year levelled a community sawmill and put 250 people out of work.

The amount of beetle-damaged wood being marketed by B.C. producers has prompted a trade complaint from the U.S. Lumber Coalition.

The coalition complains B.C. is getting around the Softwood Lumber Agreement by marketing beetle-damaged wood as low quality, thereby ensuring producers pay drastically cut rates of stumpage and gaining an unfair subsidy. The coalition maintains the lumber should be considered a grade that would prompt much higher stumpage fees.