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COLUMN

New BC Government Needs To Take A Close Look At FRBC 

by Jim Stirling 

A legacy of the thankfully departed NDP government in British Columbia is things no one else wants. The notorious fast ferries, built to run between the mainland and Vancouver Island, are a classic example. The three vessels cost taxpayers $463 million to build and were so flawed they could never perform. No other buyers for them have been found anywhere in the world, even at fire sale prices. What to do with Skeena Cellulose? It had been heavily supported financially by the NDP government and is one of the sorriest episodes in the province's forest industry history. 

Its ultimate resolution is unclear, but it will continue to be costly in human and financial terms. With all the creative bookkeeping, write-offs, subsidies, tax deferrals, wage cutbacks and plain old unpaid bills, it may never be known exactly how much money has been poured into the ailing entity and the levels of suffering its lack of sustainable performance have caused throughout northwestern BC. 

Buyers haven't exactly been lining up for Skeena Cellulose's Port Edward pulp mill, three regional sawmills and a wood basket dominated by expensive-to-access pulp quality wood. The likelihood of a suitor showing up any time soon is made gloomier by plummeting pulp prices. Then there's Forest Renewal BC. The Liberals have acted as they said they would during the election campaign. The CEO and board of directors were booted out and a review of all the Crown corporation's programs and finances is under way. 

The Liberals could scrap FRBC entirely. If that doesn't occur, its priorities will be redefined.

A report is expected in the fall to determine FRBC's future. The NDP created FRBC in 1994. It is funded by the forest industry, which makes FRBC another tax and a costly millstone that's contributed to the erosion of the industry's competitiveness. On one hand, some of FRBC's projects were admirable, especially those confining themselves directly to the sustainability of the working forest. But too many others receiving funding could be most generously described as curious. A lack of consistency frustrated the licensees employing FRBC's time consuming procedures. Licensees were anxious to get some of their own money back to invest in the forests where they operate. 

Too often, success or denial would depend on FRBC's Project du Jour. Long term funding projects would be warmly embraced one year and scuttled the next. New workers trained for bush jobs were cut adrift. Company foresters liaising with FRBC became reluctant to publicly criticize the corporation for fear of retribution in approving the size, scope and tenure of their projects. Through all this, FRBC was growing like crazy. The forest industry and the public were dismayed to learn in 1996 that the government was siphoning money from FRBC and directing it into the maw of general revenue. There was a blithe and troublesome indifference to accountability and the accurate monitoring of whether monies were being appropriately spent or programs proving effective. FRBC has handled annual budgets exceeding $500 million. That's far too much money-and responsibility-to be cavalier about. 

Other concerns centred on FRBC's administration costs. Layered management levels became decidedly comfy. FRBC has always claimed to be a champion for forest workers and forestrydependent communities. But mission statements don't always mesh with reality. Consider the views of a silvicultural contractor living and working in a small interior town. At the comparatively tender age of 27 he's planning on winding down his business and moving on. It's not for lack of ability or interest in bush work-on the contrary-or hard work and competition. It's more unfair competition, predatory pricing and a lack of accountability that hits the little guy in the small town first and hardest, he claims. 

He uses a recent viewing on an FRBCfunded backlog project in his own backyard as an illustration of the problems. He says it was an ideal project for a couple of small local contractors to share. "It would have been meat and potatoes for us but we didn't get it, not even the crumbs." He says the local licensees invited larger contractors from out of town to bid. "The larger contractors were willing to take a loss on that job so they could get on a direct bid basis for the licensees' other jobs," he says. 

The pressure to cut costs on contract work comes from on high within the licensee hierarchy. But that's where FRBC is supposed to help. "Their projects are supposed to benefit the local community and hire a percentage of local people," he says. Local contractors buy locally and sustain the local economy. "FRBC's plans are not working and the mills are just food stamps to the lowest bidder." Contract prices for silvicultural work, while never rich, have plummeted. "What a planter got per tree 10 years ago is what the contractor gets now," he says, with only mild hyperbole. He says other contractors share his frustrations. "I've attended silvicultural conferences and you can sense the feeling of depression around the room. The harder you try, the further behind you get. It's little wonder small contractors are looking to EI." 

Perhaps the Liberals' review of FRBC will address these issues; it's especially worrisome when the young guns feel disenchanted about forestry's future. The Liberals could scrap FRBC entirely. If that doesn't occur, its priorities will be redefined. Hopefully that means its procedures and business practices will be simplified and accountable. Maybe some responsibilities will be re-assigned to licensees directly or to the forest service, despite its declining workforce. Another option could be to privatize a new, lean FRBC. Now there's a concept.

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