Land deals save the exploiters

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
September 12, 2000

When the Federation of Ontario Naturalists’ Ric Symmes, along with his counterparts at World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlands League, negotiated the Ontario Forest Accord last year with government and industry, they achieved something that would have otherwise been politically impossible — this century’s largest giveaway of Ontario’s resources to logging and mining interests. This deal, Mr. Symmes claims, was a necessary compromise given “the difficult economy of the 1990s.”

The 1990s difficult? Apart from the early 1990s, the decade was recession-free. By 1999, the year these groups signed the accord, unemployment had dropped to 1970s levels, inflation was less than 2%, government debt plummeted as the federal government and most provinces began running surpluses, exports soared and the TSE — in its biggest bull run ever — had transformed itself into a high-tech index and was poised to overtake the Dow Jones.

Many industries boomed in the 1990s, but not the ones Mr. Symmes identifies with. Not the forest industry, whose investors were fleeing, and not mining, whose stock promoters abandoned it in droves for the dot-com world. Mining and logging, two of the country’s chief rapers of the environment, were on the ropes. In their time of need, Mr. Symmes was there for them. With his help, they received government guarantees no other industrial sector could ever imagine — including perpetual access to price-frozen resources.

Instead of letting nature take her course, and letting these outdated industries contract drastically to their economically rational size, the Forest Accord ensures that the mining and forestry industries live to rape another day. In his zeal to cut a deal, Mr. Symmes has not protected the environment; he has protected two of its chief exploiters from the marketplace. Mr. Symmes pretends his deal has widespread support. In fact, the deal he and his cohorts signed with government and industry behind closed doors had widespread opposition among environmental groups, the native community and tourist operators: If the tourist industry needs intact forests to grow, it will now be taxed to compensate loggers. Neither is this resource giveaway economically sound: No independent economist in the country would endorse subsidizing money-losing resource sectors at the expense of the productive parts of the economy.

My colleague at Sierra Club, Elizabeth May, claims forests fare no better on private lands than on Crown lands. Having studied forest land regimes in Canada, the United States, Sweden, Finland, and several Third World countries, I know Ms. May to be entirely misinformed. She deplores the state of private woodlots in the Maritimes, which she presents as some sort of unregulated bastion of free-market forestry. In fact, Maritime governments thoroughly control small woodlots, adjusting wood marketing board regulations to increase feedstocks to the mills, devising managed woodlot programs to subsidize those who agree to log, and punishing woodlot owners who would otherwise stop logging. Nova Scotia’s “change-of use” tax — a steep 20% of the land’s market value as a managed woodlot — dissuades small owners from, for example, retiring on their woodlots by putting them to cottage use. The tax “keeps it in production, in forestry use,” explains Arden Whidden, the province’s director of private lands.

Yes, in the Maritimes some small woodlot owners have been clearcutting. Some, to Ms. May’s way of thinking, may be greedy; Others may need the money for their retirement. But the vast majority — about 90% of New Brunswick’s 40,000 woodlot owners, for example — have refused to clearcut, despite government policies that push them to do so, despite six years of sky-high prices, and despite the aggressive tactics of logging contractors that Ms. May describes. Small woodlot owners tend to log selectively or not at all. Yet Ms. May equates their conduct to the government’s – – even implying they clearcut more than government — when clearcutting accounts for more than 90% of logging on Crown-owned timberland, regardless of wood prices. The contrast between logging on private woodlots and logging on Crown land could not be more clear cut.

The giveaway of Ontario’s resources did not start with the Ontario Forest Accord, as the Wildlands League’s Lara Ellis correctly notes. But prior to the so-called Lands for Life negotiations that led to the accord, resource companies had limited rights and – – without subsidies — little or no ability to wreak havoc on the environment. That has changed, explains the Canadian Environmental Law Association, one of Canada’s leading environmental law firms, in a damning brief on the dealmaking, which it dubbed “The Lands for Mining Companies.”

CELA fears the government has given loggers and miners new rights “to such a degree that future governments and future generations will be precluded from making land use protection decisions. By arguably increasing the tenure of forestry and mineral interests in land use allocations, outside of the parks and protected areas designated, now, there will be huge economic costs to future governments who want to protect more land. This is partly because the process for additional protection is vague and non-specific, while the forest industry is given guarantees to present levels of fibre and wood supply, and without increased costs.” The forestry companies also obtained “undisputedly and for the first time, access to the vast lands north of the 50th parallel,” explains lawyer Theresa McClenaghan, principal author of the CELA brief.

Put another way, the resource companies knew what they were doing. And so did the Mike Harris government, which selected World Wildlife Fund, Wildlands League and Federation of Ontario Naturalists — and excluded natives and all other environmentalists — to negotiate in secret on behalf of all the rest of us.

In the past, environmentalists fought for full disclosure and a transparent public process. The Ontario Forest Accord, and the government-backed Clayoquot deal Elizabeth May defends, rips the heart out of environmental principles. The Clayoquot negotiations “were anything but open and transparent,” says Valerie Langer of Friends of Clayoquot Sound. CELA’s report states: “[T]hese commitments have been given to a selected group of companies, based on an arbitrary, ad hoc and non- public process.”

Read part 1: “The envirocrats’ betrayal of the environment”

Read letters of response

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