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As threat of wildfire grows, B.C. lets logging debris litter landscape for years

As threat of wildfire grows, B.C. lets logging debris litter landscape for years


After managing the fight against last summer’s massive Shovel Lake fire, a member of the B.C. Wildfire Service had a major complaint about what he was seeing on the ground.

He’d noticed large piles of logs and other woody debris lined up along roads in the wildfire zone near the northern community of Fraser Lake, west of Prince George, B.C. He suspected all that timber was helping the fire spread and intensify, and filed a complaint with B.C.’s forestry watchdog, the Forest Practices Board.

“The complainant told the board that he has worked throughout the province and has never seen the amount of debris that he saw at the Shovel Lake wildfire,” an investigative report from the board says.

But as it turns out, every logging company in the area had met their legal requirements under B.C.’s Wildfire Act for clearing out wood and debris.

That’s a problem, the watchdog says. The current rules allow forestry firms to wait too long and leave too much wood on the ground, and the board is asking the province for changes

“If [the time frame] could be reduced, you’d basically improve your chances of fighting fires in those areas,” the board’s chair, Kevin Kriese, told CBC.

“If they can reduce it even a little, that would be helpful.”

’30 months is too long’ 

Right now, forestry companies have 30 months — a full two and a half years — to clean up debris after logging.

Even then, huge amounts of dead, woody material are allowed to remain on the ground. On a relatively flat, south-facing surface, up to 99 tonnes of branches and twigs can be left behind in every hectare of lodgepole pine that’s been harvested, according to the board’s report.

Millions of tonnes of slash are left behind from B.C. forestry operations each year. There’s concern that the piles of dry fuel contribute to the growth of wildfires. (Sam Beebe/Flickr)

After two record-breaking wildfire seasons in a row, the province is listening to the board’s concerns.

“The ministry agrees the current time period of 30 months is too long and has already started reviewing the guidelines with a view to making changes,” a forests ministry spokesperson said in an email.

The wildfire service has formed a working group to look at the current strategy for dealing with fire hazards on the landscape, according to the board.

The pine beetle problem

The Shovel Lake fire was sparked last July and eventually burned through 922 square kilometres, forcing evacuations, destroying buildings and threatening the Fort St. James National Historic Site. It was one of the biggest wildfires in B.C.’s worst season on record.

Forests in the area had been hit hard by the mountain pine beetle — trees killed during an infestation can fuel particularly intense wildfires. Combine that with the effects of climate change and the results are potentially catastrophic, according to the board.

The annual allowable cut for the area around the Shovel Lake fire was increased in 2002 in an attempt to deal with  beetle-killed trees and potentially head off the threat of fire.

The impact of that plan was complicated in 2004 when the Wildfire Act came into force and extended the deadline for dealing with logging debris by almost a year from the previous limit of 19 months. The reasoning for the extra time was to give the pellet industry a chance to come in and collect the woody leftovers, according to the board’s report.

Forestry companies in B.C. have 30 months to clean up debris created from harvesting timber. (CBC)

Taken together, increases to the allowable cut and the timeframe for cleaning up debris meant that huge swaths of the region’s landscape were covered with woody slash.

“According to B.C. Wildfire Service staff, when a fire gets going in this situation and is accompanied by drought conditions, ‘only a change in the weather can put it out,’ ” the report says.

Need for more planned burns

The board also points out that the forestry industry used to rely on prescribed burning to deal with fire hazards, but that has virtually been abandoned in recent decades because of public complaints about the smoke. That has only contributed to the problem.

Kriese said B.C.’s forest industry often gets a lot of flak from the public, but when it comes to wildfire prevention, these companies play a crucial role.

“In terms of fuel reduction, the logging they’re doing out there is actually really positive. We want to encourage them to still go back into these pine beetle stands,” Kriese said.

Diamond Isinger, a spokesperson for the Council of Forest Industries, said industry representatives have yet to review the watchdog’s report, but they look forward to looking at the recommendations.

The board has asked for a response from the government outlining its progress by the end of the year.



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All B.C. schools must provide free menstrual products for students, government orders

All B.C. schools must provide free menstrual products for students, government orders


All B.C. public schools are now required to provide free menstrual products for students in school bathrooms, the provincial government has announced.

Under a ministerial order issued Friday, schools must make the products available by the end of 2019. 

“This is a common-sense step forward that is, frankly, long overdue,” Education Minister Rob Fleming said in a statement.

“We look forward to working with school districts and communities to make sure students get the access they need, with no stigma and no barriers.”

A statement from the ministry said B.C. is the first province in Canada to mandate free menstrual products in all bathrooms.

The ministerial order comes with $300,000 in provincial startup funding. A statement said the education ministry will be working with school districts in the coming months to ensure they have funding to meet the new requirements.

In February, the New Westminster school district passed a motion to provide free menstrual products in all its schools. The board said it hoped the move would inspire other districts in B.C. — or the provincial government — to do the same.

The move in New Westminster follows a United Way campaign called Period Promise, which advocates for access to free menstrual products.

Members of the New Westminster school district backed calls by Period Promise to provide free menstrual products in schools in February. (Mike Zimmer/CBC)

Rebecca Ballard, a Grade 11 student in New Westminster, applauded the government’s decision.

“In my own experience, I know that many young women feel awkward asking for menstrual products at a school office, especially if there isn’t an adult there with whom they feel comfortable,” she said at a news conference on Friday.

“I believe the decision to provide this free service also symbolizes a progression towards eliminating the taboo nature of menstruation. This is something all young women go through and should never feel bad about, or ashamed.”

Rebecca Ballard, left, a Grade 11 student in New Westminster, B.C., said young women should never feel ashamed about having their period. (CBC)

Fleming said the stigma-free aspect of providing menstrual products in bathrooms is important for students, who would sometimes need to ask school staff for tampons or pads.

“Administrative leaders … they understand that students don’t want to talk about everything that’s going on with them,” the education minister said Friday.

“This is something that will help students not only have access to a product they can’t afford, that sometimes isn’t available in the school systems, but [now] principals, vice-principals, teachers and support staff won’t necessarily have to know what your business is on a particular day.”

Susanne Skidmore, co-chair of the Period Promise campaign, said she and her colleagues have been working toward this goal — and other, national goals — for 10 years.

“This a fundamental shift to improve accessibility of menstrual products and reduce period poverty across British Columbia.”

The province also announced Friday that it’s providing a one-time grant of $95,000 to support the United Way Period Promise research project. The money will pay for menstrual products at up to 10 non-profit agencies and for research into how best to provide services and products.



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How B.C. brought in Canada's 1st carbon tax and avoided economic disaster

How B.C. brought in Canada’s 1st carbon tax and avoided economic disaster


Eleven years ago, Jock Finlayson and his colleagues at the Business Council of B.C. were mildly alarmed by how quickly Gordon Campbell’s provincial government implemented North America’s first carbon tax.

“We were concerned, to be candid, about what the implications of this would be for our members and for the business community generally,” Finlayson, the council’s chief policy officer told CBC.

Today, after watching the tax in action for more than a decade, he still doesn’t love it, but he’s also seen the advantages of putting a price on pollution.

“I’d say in macro [economic] terms, because of the way the policy was designed, it’s probably been a wash. In other words, I don’t think it’s either helped or hurt overall growth in the provincial economy,” he said.

As the last four provinces to resist carbon pricing are dragged into a new federal tax scheme, the country’s oldest carbon tax might serve as a good example of what to expect.

‘Good for the environment and the economy’

To be clear, not everyone is happy with the tax. The right-leaning Fraser Institute argues it makes B.C. less attractive for investors.

“The end result is less investment, lower rates of job-creation, and fewer opportunities for British Columbians to prosper,” the institute’s Niels Veldhuis and Charles Lammam wrote in a 2017 op-ed opposing increases to the tax.

And Finlayson said he’s still concerned that businesses in industries like pulp and paper, mining and food processing can’t compete with rivals in other provinces because of the high price of energy in B.C.

But the economists who spoke to CBC for this story suggest B.C.’s tax is working as it should. By making pollution more expensive to reflect the environmental costs, the tax appears to have changed the behaviour of British Columbians and led to a drop in greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, while sectors of B.C. economy that consume a lot of energy have suffered from the higher cost of fuel, others, apparently spurred by corporate tax cuts, are thriving.

“This carbon tax is a model for the world that well-designed carbon pricing can be good for the environment and the economy. In the 11 years since B.C. brought in its carbon tax, it’s outpaced the rest of Canada both on emission reduction and GDP growth,” said Stewart Elgie, a professor of law and economics at the University of Ottawa.

In 2007, B.C.’s premier at the time, Gordon Campbell (left), signed an agreement with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, pledging to fight global warming. (Chuck Stoody/Canadian Press)

Looking back, the origin story for B.C.’s carbon tax sounds counterintuitive.

The tax, first set at $10 per tonne of carbon dioxide emissions, was brought in by a B.C. Liberal government — the equivalent of a conservative administration in most parts of the country.

But that was July 2008, before the true onset of the global financial crisis. Al Gore’s climate change documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, was still fuelling a wave of concern about greenhouse gas emissions.

“It was a very popular tax. I think it caught both the NDP and the Greens provincially off guard,” said pollster Mario Canseco, president of Vancouver’s Research Co.

The NDP launched an “axe the tax” campaign, arguing it would kill jobs, and leader Carole James promised she’d dump it if she were elected premier in the 2008 election.

She wasn’t, and the Liberals helped ease British Columbians into the idea of a carbon tax by making it revenue neutral. Taxpayers received rebates, and the province lowered corporate and personal income taxes.

NDP embrace the tax

Since then, the provincial NDP has come around on the tax. When the party came into power two years ago, James was named finance minister, and she’s overseen a thaw of the carbon tax rate, which had been frozen since 2012.

As of April 1, B.C.’s rate is $40 per tonne of carbon dioxide emissions, which translates to 8.89 cents per litre of gasoline. It’s set to top out at $50 a tonne in 2021.

In the meantime, numerous researchers have tried to determine the impact of the tax. According to a 2015 paper, B.C.’s emissions had dropped by between five and 15 per cent since the tax was implemented, and it had a “negligible impact” on the overall economy.

Elgie, of the University of Ottawa, was part of a wide-ranging 2013 study that showed a 19 per cent drop in B.C.’s per capita fuel consumption in the first four years of the tax, while the province’s economy slightly outperformed the rest of the country.

“The other side of the carbon price is that it creates an incentive for innovation,” Elgie said. “B.C. has now become a leader in clean technology.”

He pointed to Squamish’s Carbon Engineering, which has developed technology that it says can suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into fuel.

Sumeet Gulati, a professor in food and resource economics at the University of British Columbia, has studied the impact of the carbon tax on consumer choices — particularly, the choices of drivers.

B.C.’s carbon tax currently amounts to 8.89 cents per litre of gas. (Dave Will/CBC)

A 2016 research paper he co-wrote suggests the carbon tax has pushed B.C. drivers to choose cars that are more fuel efficient.

“If we didn’t have it … we’d be at least emitting on average seven per cent more per person in B.C. in terms of carbon emissions while driving, and cars would be about four per cent less fuel efficient,” Gulati told CBC.

Room for improvement

In recent years, the province has abandoned the idea of keeping the tax revenue neutral, and is now using some of the proceeds to encourage development of green technologies.

The folks at the Fraser Institute say that’s a mistake.

“Firms in British Columbia now not only face the highest carbon tax in North America, but they no longer enjoy any of the offsetting benefits that briefly existed as a result of lower [corporate income tax] rates,” the authors of a January report wrote.

Gulati also believes a return to revenue neutrality is essential.

“It’s important to make it politically resilient, despite who comes into power,” he said.

On the other hand, he’d like to see the rate keep rising, up to $75 or even $100 per tonne of emissions.

As for Finlayson at the Business Council of B.C., he’d like to see more support for businesses that have been hurt by the tax, including exporters, manufacturers and pulp and paper mills.

He’d also like to see a true Canada-wide carbon pricing scheme that would put businesses on an even playing field while tackling emissions.

“It’s unfortunate that the whole national climate change policy framework is in disarray at the moment because of all the opposition that we’re seeing from some provinces and some political parties,” he said.

“If we’re going to deal with this climate change issue and do so through a sensible carbon pricing regime, the logic is very powerful to try and do that in a coordinated, pan-Canadian way.”



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Residents far from home: B.C. killer whales spotted in California waters

Residents far from home: B.C. killer whales spotted in California waters


A recent sighting of southern resident killer whales near Monterey, Calif., has researchers taking note — as the pod usually calls the waters off B.C. and Washington state home.

Josh McInnes, research coordinator at Marine Life Studies in Monterey, was one of the scientists who spotted the pod of killer whales that had ventured more than 1,000 kilometres south.

McInnes was on a project studying transient whales that hunt grey whales migrating north.

“I saw a bunch of spouts in the distance and tall dorsal fins,” he told On The Island host Gregor Craigie.

“As they got closer, I took a photograph and looked right away and I recognized L pod, which is … one of the local southern resident pods that frequents the waters off Washington and British Columbia.

“I’ve spent many years in the water watching them. I knew right away by their markings on their dorsal fin, the saddle patches, that was them.”

The findings shocked McInnes and his colleagues, who had never seen the resident whales so far south.

A researcher thinks the whales may have been looking for food in California. (Marine Life Studies)

Could be travelling for food

So why were the whales — around 25 of them — so far from home?

McInnes says salmon are starting to come to the ocean in that part of the U.S. and the whales, which eat the salmon, might be looking for food.

“It’s a really positive thing to see, that they’re possibly in a different region where salmon might be better off, than, say, up in the Pacific Northwest, where we know chinook is critically endangered,” he suggested.

It’s not known if travelling south for food could become a trend for the southern residents. Whale research, he said, only began in the 1970s and historical data is poor.

More studies are required, but McInnes says it is possible the whales are becoming more willing to travel to find food.

The whales he observed on their California sojourn, at least, appeared to be in good health.



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