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Community gets a look at forest project

The recent meeting to discuss the province's invitation to the District of Sechelt to apply for a community forest licence brought up a multitude of questions for which officials have no answers yet.

The recent meeting to discuss the province's invitation to the District of Sechelt to apply for a community forest licence brought up a multitude of questions for which officials have no answers yet.

However, the district plans to create a general operating plan for the proposed community forest in time for the March 12 application deadline, pledging to "work out solutions as concerns are raised," said acting mayor of Sechelt Barry Poole this week.

The community meeting was to give the public what little information the district had on what a community forest could look like on the Coast and hear from the public any concerns.

However, it was made clear by the end of the five-hour meeting Jan. 29 that the area, which is yet to be formally decided upon by the province, must be used primarily for logging.

"The idea is to log trees, and we can't lose sight of that. The idea is not to create parks. If we did, the ministry would take it back," said Poole.

The province is offering various areas around B.C. to municipalities to create community forests. Community forests have had about a 50 per cent success rate in the past, according to statistics shared by Bob Clarke of the Revelstoke Community Forest Corporation. Revelstoke has been operating a successful community forest for the past 12 years.

In that community, similar in size to Sechelt, citizens were feeling the impact of high unemployment and seeing millions of dollars in wood product leaving their community daily with big business taking the pay-off, he said.

"In 1986 we were in a severe economic slump. Unemployment was over 30 per cent. There were few local timber rights and little control of what happened to the timber in our community," said Clarke.

Revelstoke spent seven years lobbying the province for local control of its forest. In 1993, the province told Revelstoke it could buy 119,000 hectares of partially loggable forest for $3 million.

"Our city came up with $1 million, we got $1 million from local mills and the citizens of Revelstoke borrowed $1 million from the Royal Bank," he said.

Revelstoke created a working model for a community forest that included logging, saving endangered species habitat and maintaining recreation areas. Since 1993 Revelstoke has made a profit nearly every year on its community forest and has paid back half the $1 million borrowed from the bank to start the process.

But Clarke notes the community's success in the past has been due to the transparent system the forest operates under and the total community involvement that includes sending year-end financial statements to every citizen of Revelstoke.

"I think the reason this has worked for us is that we have a very transparent system and concerns are addressed as they come up," he said.

"It can work, and you have an incredible opportunity here. We had to purchase our land and the ministry is handing over a piece of land to you, so you can manage it how you see fit. That's an incredible situation."

The areas now up for community forest status are cutblocks the government took back from larger corporations such as Canfor and Interfor in recent years.

However, while this act is heralded by some, others suspect it's a way to unload some contentious forest areas in B.C.

"We've thought about that, and we may decide we don't want the area the province is offering us. But the chances of us saying no are pretty slim," Poole said. "I think what we heard loud and clear at the meeting is that everyone wants a community forest. If we get a contentious piece of land, we could have the opportunity to maybe solve some of those issues."

But a community forest needs to be profitable, or at least self-sustaining, said Poole, noting if Sechelt is offered an area that can't be logged, such as a steep slope or an area in the local watershed, it is not prepared to go ahead with logging for the sake of profit.

The district has no idea what size of land it will be offered as yet, only that it will contain an annual cut of 20,000 cubic metres of timber.

"We are currently working with someone who is identifying all the land bases we could potentially be offered and what areas would not be suitable to logging," Poole said. "We intend to ask the province for the largest land base we can get that is suitable."

Currently the District of Sechelt is spearheading the application process and working with local interest groups to define what a community forest could look like on the Coast.

Poole says the district will hold more public meetings on the issue when and if it is granted the application.

The district has also extended a hand of partnership to the Sechelt Indian Band to seek the band's input on the project. However, the band signed its own forestry agreement with the province last year.