District keeps up pressure to expand community forest

But province so far has rejected the idea

The District of Houston isn’t giving up on its bid to expand the Dungate Community Forest to put more wood harvesting under local control.

District officials lobbied provincial officials this fall at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Vancouver and continued the effort in mid-December with a face-to-face meeting with forests, lands, natural resources and rural development minister Doug Donaldson in Smithers.

“It’s still early in the process. We’re going to keep going,” said Houston mayor Shane Brienen of the District’s efforts.

So far the District has been unsuccessful with the forests ministry issuing a statement following the December meeting with Donaldson encouraging “ministry staff and representatives from Houston to continue to meet in order to identify potential ways to expand the Dungate Community Forest.”

The Dungate Community Forest now has a licence to cut up to 29,000 cubic metres a year of wood and the District wants that increased to up to 50,000 cubic metres.

Formed in 2008 and 99 per cent owned by the District, wood from the community forest goes to the Canfor mill.

Profits from the business are returned to the community in the form of grants for non-profit groups for a wide variety of activities.

That fits with the intent behind community forests of providing a revenue stream that’s under local control.

Houston, said Brienen, has been emphasizing the impact on the community of the events of 2014 when West Fraser closed Houston Forest Products, resulting in the loss of more than 200 jobs.

That closure was the outcome of a larger deal in which West Fraser swapped its Houston area wood licence with one held by Canfor in Quesnel. Canfor then announced it was closing its Quesnel mill.

The result was that Canfor increased its licence holdings in Houston and West Fraser increased its licence holdings in Quesnel.

That benefited both companies by stabilizing the wood supply for their mills but in addition to job losses in Houston, the District also lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes each year, placing an ongoing strain on the District’s ability to provide local services and to maintain its infrastructure.

“And that happened without a clawback,” said Brienen of a provincial policy which, at one time, resulted in a take back of per cent of a licence when it transferred. It was this policy which helped provide wood for the creation of community forests.

“Our position is that the same amount of wood is being cut and the province is getting the same amount of stumpage but for Houston, we lost out,” he said.

For its part, the forests ministry has so far been firm in its position that all of the wood in the Houston area has been allocated.

“Expansions to community forests are only available when there is available volume within a timber supply area,” the ministry said in a prepared statement. “There is no volume available in the Morice or Lakes timber supply areas for additional tenure opportunities or expansions.”

“The commitments provided under licence to existing tenure holders are important to ensure the business certainty for investment in major infrastructure such as sawmills that support rural communities.”

The forests ministry has also rejected a District proposal to expand the community forest by including Crown lands adjacent to the community which are subject to being cleared to lessen the risk of wildfires affecting affecting built up areas. That would, in effect, increase the volume of wood available to the community forest.

Brienen said the District’s position is equivalent to that of the Northwest B.C. Resource Benefits Alliance, a coalition of 21 northwestern local governments which is lobbying the province for a share of the taxes from resource development that now flow to the provincial treasury.

“We just can’t develop our infrastructure, we’re losing out on revenue,” said Brienen who is also the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako’s representative to the alliance.

The province has committed itself to negotiating a financing agreement with the coalition and those efforts are continuing.

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