January 10, 2005

Coulombe commission proposals would overhaul management of Quebec's public forests

After nearly a year of study and public consultation meetings, a commission headed by Guy Coulombe, a former senior official in the Quebec government, has made some 80 recommendations for improving the management of Quebec's publicly-owned forests. Among them are the creation of a Chief Forester and a Forest Auditor for the province and engagement of all forest management units in forest practices certification by 2007.

Its report calls for the adoption of an ecosystem-based management approach and proposes five new policy priorities. The commission is also asking the government to move quickly to single out protected areas so that the target of having 8% of Quebec's land area under protection can be met by the end of 2006.

"Our discussions led us to various findings, some of them disquieting, and this is what prompted us to propose five major policy changes," said Coulombe. "These changes go straight to the heart of QuÈbec's forest management policy and we invite the government, forest stakeholders and the general public to see them as a whole rather than as separate elements."

The five main priorities recommended by the commission are meant to:

1. Move away from management based primarily on wood production and consider forests as a whole by focusing on ecosystem-based management and the completion of the protected areas network;

2. Go from volume-based wood allocations to allocations that take into account tree quality and accessibility of forest stands in given areas;

3. Move from broad-based silviculture, where yields are often uncertain, to better planned silvicultural treatments which would make it possible to produce wood not only in the right way, but in the right place and at the right time, in softwood, hardwood and mixed stands;

4. Prepare for the inevitable consolidation of the wood processing industry; and

5. Decentralize forest management in a way that is transparent, keeps stakeholders informed and elicits their active participation.

"Currently, public forest management is primarily geared toward wood production, while ensuring all the same a certain protection of other resources," commission member AndrÈ Bouchard pointed out. "In light of our consultations and analyses, we are convinced that QuÈbec must definitely lean toward ecosystem-based management. This way of managing forests clearly appears to be more beneficial, not only because it will protect the environment and better balance management priorities, but also because it will ensure the long-term viability of wood processing companies."

With regard to protected areas, the commission found that Quebec is not only lagging behind other Canadian provinces, it is not keeping up with its own target. The report strongly urges the government to maintain its objective to protect at least 8% of the area in each of Quebec's natural zones by the end of 2006. This should be increased even further, to 12%, for boreal zone areas, with this objective to be met by 2010.

The commission's review included 39 days of public hearings as well as less formal regional discussion forums, plus technical studies and a review of more than 3,000 stakeholder submissions. As a result, the commission has concluded that on the whole, Quebec's forests are overharvested. In hardwood forests, high grading has been practised to remove the best trees. A move toward selection cutting has so far been only partial, and the report recommends that a major program be implemented to restore the quality of degraded hardwood forests.

With regard to softwood forests, the commission found a worrisome decline in wood capital over the period between the last two forest surveys. A comparison of the last two forest surveys in Quebec done for the commission revealed an overall drop of 4.1% in the volume of marketable wood on productive and accessible forest land. This decline translates into a decrease of 7% for softwood species and an increase of 2.5% for hardwood species. It indicates that the combined removal of wood--either through harvesting or losses from natural disturbances or tree mortality--has outstripped the production capacity of softwood forests. The commission also called attention to serious deficiencies in the methods now used to assess the state of forests and to evaluate the maximum sustainable yield in a particular area.

Its report includes specific recommendations for corrective measures which that can be integrated into the next management plans to be produced for each forest management unit across Quebec. In the meantime, the commission believes caution should be exercised when it comes to the volumes actually available for harvest in public forests, in order to ensure that Quebec wood processing companies continue to have access to a stable supply base.

"The changes that we propose are major and realistic enough," Coulombe explained, "for us to recommend that the government postpone the implementation of the next forest management plans for a year in all regions. As a result, these plans would come into force in 2008, rather than according to the current timetable of 2007."

From now until the next management plans come into effect, i.e. 2008, the report proposes that the maximum sustainable yield for commercial species of the FSPL group (fir, spruce, jack pine and larch) be reduced by 20% from the sustainable yield presently in effect in each of the public forest's territorial units. Maximum sustainable yields For species other than those of the FSPL group would remain the same as those currently in force.

In the area of funding management activities, the report includes proposals to readjust the budgets currently earmarked for silviculture credits and programs aimed at protecting and developing forests. The objective is to provide some financial leeway which will make it possible to implement programs relating to six main themes: acquiring forest-related knowledge; building forest roads; restoring the quality of hardwood forests; carrying out intensive silviculture projects; developing inhabited forest projects; and supporting local forest stakeholders.

As a means of bringing about these changes as soon as possible, the commission has recommended that the Quebec government establish an implementation committee and appoint, through new legislation, a Chief Forester. This person would, among other things, be in charge of providing relevant information to the public, the Minister responsible for forests and agencies involved in the forest sector, so informed choices can be made concerning the use of forest resources in the context of sustainable development.

The Chief Forester would also be responsible for providing direction, especially for the preparation of regional forest management plans and the methods the regional offices of the Ministry of Natural Resources, Wildlife and Parks (MNRWP) would use to determine the maximum sustainable yield in each forest management unit. The Chief Forester would be empowered to set the annual allowable cut in each territorial unit, in the context of multi- resource management, and would be accountable to the public for decisions made. The report also proposes several measures aimed at increasing the powers of regional decision makers, especially those of the regional conferences of elected representatives (confÈrences rÈgionales des Èlus, CREs).

The report proposes as well the naming of a Forest Auditor who would be linked to the office of the Quebec Auditor General. The commission suggests that this proposal be considered in conjunction with the draft bill, tabled in November 2004, which would result in the appointment of a sustainable development commissioner (ELW December 6-13, 2004).

In addition, the commission calls for an enhanced role for Quebec's environmental hearings agency, the Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement (BAPE) so it can broaden its public hearings role and retain the public's trust in relation to the environmental aspect of public forest management. In this respect, the regulation respecting sustainable forest management, which the Commission proposes replace the current regulation respecting standards of forest management for forests in the domain of the state, would be submitted to a generic BAPE hearing every five years. Moreover, it proposes a phased-in requirement that the forest development plans prepared in each region also be the subject of BAPE hearings.

Other recommendations propose new methods for bringing decision-making centres closer to regional and local communities and increasing transparency. For example, the commission sees a key role and associated powers for the CREs, when it comes to the important decisions related to forest resource management. The report says CREs should be appointed as the political and regional agencies responsible for implementing regional forest commissions, approving regional forest management plans and approving intensive sylvicultural programs as well as inhabited forest projects. To provide financial support for this initiative, the report says the government should allocate $2.5 million per year, to come from a readjustment of the MNRWP's budget. Professional and technical personnel of the MNRWP's regional offices and of the various regional county municipalities (MRCs) should also be called upon to contribute in some way, adds the commission.

The main missions of regional forest commissions would be to prepare the regional forest management plans, renewed every five years, and to support the CREs in overseeing the process for defining and operating local planning agencies within every forest management unit. They would also be responsible for producing integrated forest management plans, co-ordinating management work carried out by accredited companies, and ensuring forest practices certification. The commission further recommends that all public forest management units in Quebec be engaged in a forest practices certification process by the end of 2007.

The Quebec Forest Industry Council (QFIC) welcomed the Coulombe commission report. The industry group said its proposals represent nothing short of a complete overhaul of Quebec's forest system. In particular, the QFIC commended the commission's decision to integrate two major proposals submitted by the industry: the creation of the independent post of chief forester and mandatory forest management practices certification. In each case, the objective has been to ensure transparency, independence and credibility with respect to both forestry practices and evaluation of the volumes available for harvesting.

However, the QFIC opposes the commission's proposal to immediately reduce the allowable cut by 20% and to maintain this cutback until 2008. As a blanket measure applying to all regions, the proposal would have the effect of deliberately penalizing certain regions, on a relatively arbitrary basis--with all the socioeconomic consequences entailed by such a measure--since the next calculations could result in reductions much smaller than 20% in many locations, said the Council.

For its part, Greenpeace praised this proposal: representative Steven Guilbeault noted that "for more than a decade, environmentalists have decried the unsustainable level of logging in Quebec forests." The group also applauded the commission's call for ecosystem-based forest management and its recommendation that all logging operations be certified by 2007 and that barriers to certification be removed. "Managing for wildlife, soil and water quality and for all users of the forests, industrial or not, is a vital step in the right direction," Guilbeault added.

While Quebec has lagged behind other provinces in the amount of logging operations sustainably certified, international customers for pulp and lumber have increasingly demanded certified forest products. Currently, only the Forest Stewardship Council certification system is supported by Greenpeace and most major environmental groups.

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