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Woodlot changes could allow land sales: BC forest minister

Private land that has been managed in woodlots could one day be on the real estate market, the minister responsible for forests in British Columbia acknowledged last week.

"As private land owners they'd have options," said Steve Thomson, the minister of forests, lands and natural resource operations. One option would be to sell, he said.

Thomson made the comment while explaining changes the government introduced in the legislature last week to the Forest Act that would, "Allow woodlot owners to remove private land from their woodlots, at the discretion of the minister, to provide woodlot owners flexibility in managing their assets in changing economic times and to plan for retirement."

There are some 860 woodlots in the province. The government's website says that on Vancouver Island, for example, many of them are at "urban interface areas," meaning close to communities.

Woodlots are a combination of private land and public Crown land that are managed together.

The provincial government was widely criticized, including by the Auditor General, for releasing private land from Tree Farm Licences in 2007 without benefit to the public or consideration of the public interest.

"At the surface level there are parallels with the TFL removal," said NDP forestry critic Norm Macdonald. "It does make me want to focus on it."

Woodlot owners have pushed for the change and there may be good practical reasons for it, he said, but added he plans to take a hard look at whether the public interest is being protected. "There was a deal made and the deal changes and one wonders where's the public benefit," he said.

"We need to do our due diligence and see if there's a parallel or if it's a sensible way of dealing with an issue that's come up," he said.

The legislation will make it possible to remove private land from woodlots, but there is a "significant amount" of policy and criteria to be put in place before it happens, said Thomson. That criteria would include things like having the land in the woodlot for a certain number of years before it can be removed, he said.

"We have a situation where many woodlot owners are aging, they may be dealing with succession and estates for their properties," he said. "We're simply looking at this point to provide flexibility to be able to do that."

Asked if the government would get anything in exchange for allowing private land out of woodlots, Thomson said it would simply be a matter of removing the land.

In some situations it will allow woodlot owners to keep operating without giving up their entire operation, he said. "This will be limited."

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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