It was with considerable interest that we read last week’s article on Burns Lake Community Forest Ltd.’s plan to distribute $1.5 million to the Village of Burns Lake, the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, and the Burns Lake Band. (“Burns Lake Community Forest to distribute profits”, LD News, Nov. 27, 2013.)
For those of us intimately involved in both the creation and management of BLCF and its affiliated companies, the news – while not a surprise – was disappointing. The Village of Burns Lake, as the company’s shareholder of record, may have a legal right to take possession of the company’s profits, but BLCF and its affiliated companies were never intended to be ‘cash cows’ for the municipality or any other special interest group.
In fact, during the public consultations of 1998, local residents made it quite clear that profits from the proposed community forest corporation should belong to all citizens of the Lakes District, and not the Village of Burns Lake. At that time, the vast majority of those surveyed (many of whom resided within municipality boundaries) were adamant that the Village of Burns Lake should maintain an arm’s length’ relationship with the fledgling company and community forest, allowing local people with no vested interest to manage it for the benefit of everyone within the Lakes District. This philosophy is reflected in the existing Burns Lake Community Forest license document, which states the tenure is to benefit residents of the Lakes TSA.
Ironically, the most vociferous opponents of a village-controlled community forest were First Nations. Both the Burns Lake Band and the Office of the Wet’suwet’en only agreed to support the initiative if any proceeds from it were managed by an independent board of directors.
During the community forest’s early years, the municipality allowed Lakes District residents to manage the community forest and its finances without interference. The initial board of directors did not even include formal municipal representation; directors (including those from First Nations) represented the community as a whole, and were expected to act in the best interest of the company and the larger community. This management model was still favoured as recently as 2008, when a comprehensive 10-year public review found that the majority of respondents still didn’t feel profits generated by BLCF and its sister companies should flow into village coffers.
For the most part, the village honoured the community’s wishes – until 2010. That’s when the Village of Burns Lake, without warning, dissolved the 10-member board of directors and replaced it with three appointees from village council and three from First Nations. As one of BLCF’s founding fathers said after the announcement: “That was the end of the community forest as we know it.”
Surprisingly, the village’s dictatorial actions generated little public outcry at the time. A few former board members publicly took council to task for its actions, but for the most part, local residents remained silent. Was it apathy? Certainly, maintaining interest in the community forest has always been a challenge.
Even after ‘coup’ of 2010, there were still a few of us around who remembered the company’s original vision, and promises made to the community so many years ago. The board removed this last impediment by terminating two long-term employees (us) without cause in 2012, all in the name of ‘restructuring. In retrospect, perhaps the treatment we received was a blessing in disguise; as senior staff members, it would have been very difficult to implement policies that appear to contravene the original intent of the community forest proposal.
This ‘restructuring’, which clearly includes last week’s decision to dividend the municipality and First Nations, has been done without public consultation. While a case can be made for sharing a portion of BLCF’s profit with local First Nations – after all, the revenue was generated within their traditional territories – there is little justification for turning over such a large percentage of it to the municipality. Electoral areas B and E of the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako can make a better case for entitlement; after all, the community forest lies within those two political constituencies.
How the $1.5 million turned over to the village and local First Nations will be used remains a mystery at this point. One thing is certain, though: once the money disappears into the coffers of these organizations, the majority of Lakes District residents will have little say in how it is dispersed.
The Burns Lake community forest has been a tremendous asset. Its legacy is visible everywhere, from the bike trails around Boer Mountain, upgrades to rural community halls, and the interpretive centre in downtown Burns Lake, to name a few. Does this current vision of the community forest – one which sees company managed behind closed doors for the benefit of a select few – have the support of local residents? Is this new community forest truly YOUR community forest?
There’s an old saying: If a tree falls in the forest, will anyone hear? Perhaps the biggest question facing the Lakes District now is: “If a tree falls in the community forest, will anyone care?”
Dawn Stronstad Michael Riis-Christianson