New Democrats can't see the forest for the trees


The Globe & Mail, Monday, March 6, 2000

No guts, no glory, no good. Here's why the NDP government is so unpopular in British Columbia, why British Columbians have tuned out the political soap opera and won't tune in again until they can vote this government out of office.

By promising the moon and delivering moonglow, the NDP has found that trust is difficult to win, easy to lose and very difficult to win back.

Take forestry for example. The reform of the forest industry was the most important task at hand when the NDP was first elected nine years ago. But like many other things, the New Democrats have bungled it badly and will leave a legacy of stumps and clear-cuts, instead of the vibrant industry and strong forest resource they promised in opposition.

You see, when we say "Beautiful British Columbia" on our licence plates, the beauty we're talking about is the trees that form the viewscapes along our highways. Without those trees, we would have -- as we already have on some highways -- bare rock and logging debris, Ugly British Columbia.

Big, luxuriant evergreen trees are our legacy, our identity, as well as our economy. When they're standing, they contribute to the economy forever, because beauty means property value and tourist revenue. When they're cut down, they provide minimal short-term economic return. Here today, gone forever.

The NDP's promises revolved around logging practices, the rate and size of the cut, who gets to log the forests and what we do with the trees once we cut them. They have failed on all four accounts.

Clear-cutting, that highly destructive removal of everything in the path of mechanized logging machines, is still the predominant method of logging in the province, a decade after the NDP attacked this practice of forest removal until they were hoarse.

The rate of cut is still 71 million cubic metres, way beyond what the forest resource can sustain. And who gets to cut, or the issue of transfering logging licences to local interests from some of the multinational forest companies, is another promise left to rot with all that logging slash.

The New Democrats talked a good game in opposition but, in office, they were bulldozed by the same powerful logging companies that pulled the strings when they attacked them from the safe, opposition side of the House. And they've always been closely allied with the cut-crazy forest worker unions, which now hold Premier Ujjal Dosanjh in debt for helping him win the NDP leadership two weeks ago.

I'll tell you a little story about the power of this industry. Power in the modern age means, among other things, control of public opinion. This is a battle the timber industry wins without a fight these days because the B.C. media have lost interest in discussing the province's primary resource.

Some years ago, when I was editor of Victoria's Monday Magazine, which was known for investigative reporting on forestry issues, forest giant MacMillan Bloedel offered to buy a weekly ad for a year. All we had to do in return was stop writing about them. Not write nice things about them -- just nothing at all, thanks.

Another hobbyhorse of the NDP in opposition was what we do with the logs we cut. If we export raw logs and barely processed wood, we export jobs. That's a bad idea, they said. Today, after nearly a decade in power under the NDP, we still export raw logs and barely processed wood.

The NDP used to complain that other jurisdictions to the south, such as Washington and Oregon, got three times as many jobs out of every tree they cut down as we do. Today, that's still the case.

Other jurisdictions have moved from the volume model (cutting down and milling as many trees as possible) to the value model (cutting down fewer trees and getting more value from them, by making things with their lumber instead of shipping it out). But we're still hewing wood and drawing welfare cheques in the towns where the trees have run out.

Up on the midcoast, a fabled area of lush valleys and snow-capped mountains thick with bears and wolves, forest activist Ian McAllister laments that 50 key areas are scheduled for clear-cutting this year. His father, Peter, used to battle the Socred government over forest abuses in the 1980s. At this rate, Mr. McAllister will have to pass the mantle on to his son or daughter, who hasn't been born yet.

And on Saltspring, a lush island between Victoria and Vancouver, local residents are struggling against the clear-cut logging of forests on 10 per cent of the island, including the trees that surround the drinking water supply.

The newly formed NDP government is mute on both these issues. As he installed his new cabinet this week, Mr. Dosanjh said nothing about forestry. Off the radar screen, out of sight and mind. He appointed Jim Doyle, a junior minister from the interior, as the new forestry minister.

Mr. Doyle has his work cut out for him -- an agenda of all the urgent tasks neglected by previous forestry ministers. If he has the will, which is unlikely, and if he has the time, which is more unlikely, and if he can get it through his own cabinet, which is most unlikely.
Sid Tafler is a writer and editor based in Victoria. E-mail: