Land use agreement within sight, says minister

  • Jul. 27, 2007 4:00 p.m.

By Jeff King–Lands Minister Pat Bell, on the islands for a couple of days this week, is optimistic there’ll be a Land Use Agreement signed with the Haida within months. Such a plan has been under discussion for years, with the current process first starting five years ago, and the negotiations moving government to government (between the Haida and the province) a couple of years ago. Those talks have been off and on, but since last fall, progress has been made, and an agreement was initialled by both parties in May.”Since last October there have been very, very good discussions going on and we think we are very close to an agreement that makes sense for the communities, that closely reflects the original community consultation package,” Mr. Bell told us Wednesday in an interview in Queen Charlotte. “The Haida appear to be very happy with (it) as well.” Mr. Bell met with elected officials from virtually all communities on the islands, including Sandspit, Queen Charlotte, Port, and Masset and with the Council of the Haida Nation. He says the main message he heard is that “it’s time to get on with it”. “That was the common theme, and I heard it virtually everywhere,” Mr. Bell said, “..the pain of not having a decision is far greater that the pain of whatever the decision is, so let’s get on with it.””Let’s get on with life, let’s get a certainty to our future, so that we know how we can frame what we are doing, whether we can continue to rely on timber harvesting as a primary activity, whether there’s an opportunity for on-island manufacturing, whether we need to shift to a greater level of tourism dependence, whether there’s an opportunity for mining in our future and what that might look like, what does energy production create for business opportunity, all of those factors”, he said.On the forestry side, the agreement, initialled in May, calls for an annual cut of 800,000 cubic metres, and harvest standards called Ecosystem Based Management, which will offer cultural and environmental protection, but which some loggers feel will reduce the amount of timber that can be harvested. But Mr. Bell repeated the 800,000 target is achievable.”I’ve flown most of the islands, my background actually is in log harvesting”, he said, “I have spent more time in helicopters looking at cutblocks than I care to remember. I think that 800,000 cubic metres is achievable but I think that we are going to have to work hard to achieve a sustainable cut of 800,000 cubic metres”. The key, he said, is how the EBM system is put into practice.”If you have very aggressive objectives in place, then it could be that you could only achieve 2 or 300,000 cubic metres,” he said, “If you had more relaxed objectives you might be able to achieve a million or 1.2 million cubic metres.””So the key is to set the EBM objectives at the right level to make sure you achieve your environmental objectives and your cultural objectives from the Haida’s perspective, but still have a sustainable level of cut that will meet the community needs,” the minister said. Right now, technical experts are doing a detailed analysis of the islands’ forests and the EBM objectives, and will report back within a couple of weeks. If their report says a harvest target of 800,000 cubic metres is achievable, then there will be a series of open houses on the islands, tentatively planned for late August, with time for public input.”If we get through that process and don’t find something that we have missed, if we get through that process and are confident in the outcome, then I would go forward to cabinet and ask for an approval of the plan, at which point we would have an official signing ceremony with the CHN,” Mr. Bell said. That ceremony is not likely to happen before mid-September, and more likely to happen a month or two after that, meaning an end to the years-long process by mid-October or mid-November.While there has been favourable consensus developing on the islands about the plan since it was made public in May, not everyone likes it. Two off-island logging companies-Teal Jones and Husby-have been critical, and have been expressing that criticism to the minister.”We certainly factor into account everyone’s input . You can’t exclude anyone from the process,” Mr. Bell told the Observer. “There are people who have financial interests on the islands that don’t live here. I always think that my first responsibility is to on-island residents, the people that live here, the people that have made their living here over the years, the people that intend to continue living here for a long time,” he said. He also noted the average annual cut in the last five years has been around 827,000 cubic metres, so that a drop to 800,000 is not that significant. And he says elsewhere in the province, where similar plans have been adopted, the industry comes around.”Over time, as we start putting the practices into play on the ground and work with industry in the development of the objectives, what we found is that now they are very supporting of them.” Mr. Bell said.In the final analysis, the minister thinks the plan is going to work well.”I think we have the makings here of something that really is going to make a lot of sense,” he said, ” (there are) very, very common themes around ‘let’s get some certainty. I think the Haida are there, they are willing to go there as well. I think there are real positive outcomes coming through this”.”It’s about establishing a set of thoughtful objectives that achieve both the environmental desires and objectives but also meet industry’s needs,” the minister said.