VANCOUVER SUN — The idea of designating an area of British Columbia’s forest land base as a so-called “working forest” isn’t new, but with the industry in crisis, an industry group thinks now is the time to bring it back into consideration.

B.C.’s forest sector is entering a major period of transition, and taking steps to create access to a portion of the province’s dwindling timber reserves is the industry’s No. 1 priority, said Susan Yurkovich, CEO of the Council of Forest Industries.

“Access to fibre is hands down the most important,” Yurkovich said Friday during a speech to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade that laid out her Council’s priorities in dealing with the long list of challenges facing the industry.

According to a report in the Vancouver Sun, companies are granted cutting rights through long-term tree farm licenses and timber-supply agreements, but Yurkovich said designating a land base for industry, similar to the way parks are set aside, would give companies the confidence to keep investing in operations during uncertain times.

“Let’s have a balance,” Yurkovich said. “Let’s say out loud that we value forestry also as a working forest, as a place that drives jobs and economic benefits.”

The concept of a working forest was last advanced during the early 2000s. Former premier Gordon Campbell campaigned on establishing the idea when he was first elected in 2001, but the idea didn’t fully come to pass.

“We haven’t gotten traction on it yet, but I’m hopeful that we can,” Yurkovich.

In April, Premier John Horgan launched a consultation effort that included regional round tables with companies, communities and First Nations, responsible for coming up with ideas to revitalize the industry.

Horgan’s challenge is for companies to move into making more high-value products since shrinking timber supplies due to the mountain pine beetle infestation and successive years of record wildfires mean B.C. can’t count on churning out large volumes of lower-value lumber.

Forest Minister Doug Donaldson wasn’t available for comment on Friday, but in a statement, a ministry spokesman said government highly values input from groups such as the Council of Forest Industries.

Government has asked the regional groups for ideas on how to “maximize the potential of the existing timber supply,” as well as address the needs to mitigate climate change, said David Haslam, director of communications for the ministry.

“With the Interior forest sector renewal process underway, clearly the B.C. government is open to evaluating ideas just like this regarding how to renew the Interior forest sector,” Haslam said in the statement.

Yurkovich said the industry has suffered through about 100 separate production cuts and shutdowns this year, including the permanent closure of six sawmills, resulting in thousands of layoffs this summer and fall.

The province committed $69 million in specific aid for communities hit by the downturn, but in the longer term, the Council of Forest Industries has other items on its wish list.

Yurkovich said those include streamlining some of the 60 or so pieces of legislation or regulation, in addition to the Forest Range and Practices Act, that forestry operations are subject to, investing more in product and market diversification and capitalizing on forest management as a means to address climate change.

Yurkovich said B.C. has become a high-cost jurisdiction in terms of the price to access timber compared with its export rivals.

“If we can’t be cost-competitive, we put jobs at risk,” Yurkovich said.

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