If the hon. Minister of Natural Resources would just hang tough for a little while maybe he will get a little bit of an education before the night is out.
This particular epidemic is one that has gone largely unnoticed by many Canadians. I accept that this is understandable in some areas of the country, especially in Liberal country.
If a person lives a great distance from B.C. and the areas infested with these beetles, or if a person lives in a region not directly affected by events in the logging industry, it is an outbreak that could be overlooked, at least for now. In a very short time, however, no one in this country will escape the economic impact of the mountain pine beetle infestation.
It is the responsibility of the federal government to know about the impending consequences and, more importantly, to take action to mitigate the fallout. The federal Liberal government has neglected or, more accurately, abandoned the softwood industry and the province of British Columbia, and now Alberta, in the midst of this severe crisis.
It is not through a lack of scientific understanding. It is not through a lack of expert advice. The government has been forewarned again and again. In fact, I must comment the scientists at the Canadian Forest Service for the dedication and effort they have directed to this epidemic, despite a severe lack of resources and support from their political masters.
Let us put aside the hollow sympathy and promises that will be heard from the government on this issue as the debate unfolds tonight and just stick to the facts. So far the government has only made a five year commitment of roughly $8 million per year to fight this epidemic. Three years ago, in consultation with the industry, I wrote a letter to the former finance minister, who is now our nation's Prime Minister, telling him that $50 million was needed each and every year over a 10 year period to combat the mountain pine beetle.
What was the response? A grand total of just $40 million over five years, most of it to be spent on research and administration. I can almost hear the automatic response from government members. They will cry poor. They will say the coffers are empty. They will say they just do not have that kind of money. That is simply not the truth and we know it.
Let us look at the numbers. The government has underestimated the federal surplus for each of the past seven years, meaning that Canadians have already been overtaxed by some $61 billion. So not only was the money there, but there was money to spare. It did not go back into taxpayers' wallets, nor did it go toward fighting a devastating epidemic ripping through B.C.'s forests.
It all comes down to a matter of priorities. Roughly around the time that the Prime Minister, in his former role as finance minister, was denying a reasonable level of funding to fight the mountain pine beetle epidemic, his government was diverting $100 million to Liberal friendly ad firms through the sponsorship program.
This brings me to a rather interesting aside about the mountain pine beetle crisis. The former minister of public works, Alfonso Gagliano, was rewarded, for his stewardship of the adscam billions, by being appointed ambassador to Denmark. It struck me as somewhat ironic when I read that the pine beetle infestation has already attacked more than 4.2 million hectares of land, an area roughly the size of Denmark.
When it comes to priorities, the province of British Columbia and the mountain pine beetle epidemic register very low with the government. Following the SARS outbreak, the city of Toronto received $10 million from Ottawa to run tourism ads. Compare that to the $8 million allocated to fight the pine beetle, and an industry that drives 25% of B.C.'s economy, creating 40,000 direct jobs and 120,000 indirect jobs. There are more than 80 communities in B.C.'s interior where forestry is the mainstay of the local economy.
The latest scenarios now predict an 80% pine kill in British Columbia, with the infestation peaking in 2008. The rapid spread of the infestation has taken even pessimists by surprise. This fall it was confirmed that the infestation had spread to three locations near the B.C.-Alberta border. In fact, some people say it has already transcended the border and is in Alberta. That puts another 54,000 direct and indirect jobs in Alberta at risk.
While most Canadians look forward to mild winters, free from the bitter cold, the residents in my riding of Prince George—Peace River are hoping desperately for at least a week of continuous minus 40°C weather. As we have heard tonight, that is what it takes to begin killing these pests. Yet, we have experienced unusually warm winters in northern B.C. and the climatologists advise that we can expect warmer temperatures to come.
The government must become an active leader and participant in a strategy that focuses on three elements. First, the federal government must begin now to provide programs and assistance to woodlot owners, producers and forestry companies. One of the reasons that many Canadians do not immediately recognize the severity of this epidemic is that the economic impact is not yet apparent, but very shortly there will be a sharp decline in the supply of pine with nothing left to replace it.
Right now the annual allowable cuts throughout B.C. have been expanded to get the beetle infested timber out of the forests, a necessary measure in controlling the infestation. In the short term, that means forestry companies and woodlot owners are experiencing a sharp spike in revenues as their harvests rise accordingly.
Let us look ahead a few years. In less than a decade there will be a severe shortage of pine to harvest. It is expected that some communities face a 40% decline in logging. That is when the income will dry up and more forestry jobs will disappear.
All the federal government seems to see at the moment is a healthy boost in its tax revenues. Dr. Laurie Cook, a woodlot owner in my constituency, has informed me that, like many of his colleagues, he is currently experiencing unusually high harvests and higher than usual income. However, all of his harvest areas must be replanted at considerable risk and expense. He wrote:
Future income, when the mountain pine beetle is finished with me, will be minimal to zero for several years, which will be the very time that I will have the [replanting] expenses and will have nothing to write them off against.
Dr. Cook suggests that the federal government initiate an income tax deferral program for those affected by the mountain pine beetle infestation. This is a concept that I support as part of an effort to assist affected producers.
Second, scientific research must continue, without the lion's share being eaten up in administration and bureaucracy. We need to find ways to thwart the spread of the mountain pine beetle. Admittedly, it is not an easy job. Female beetles produce about 75 eggs and enough beetles can emerge from one tree to attack 15 healthy trees. Aggressive measures must continue to harvest the infected trees and other trees weakened by fire and drought, prime breeding grounds for the beetles.
Third, reforestation is a must and the industry cannot bear this cost alone. The Liberal government likes to talk a great deal about its environmental policies, yet where is the money for reforestation as millions of hectares are being harvested to combat the mountain pine beetle? It is called planning and foresight, and once again the government cannot see any further than here and now, and how much tax revenue it can collect.
If it were truly serious about addressing this crisis, the finance minister would have responded to a request made two months ago by the B.C. ministry of forests. He asked for federal help in a 10 year $850 million plan, the plan that we are talking about tonight, to address the mountain pine beetle epidemic. The appeal has been met with silence from Ottawa.
This past August I wrote the industry minister shortly after he was appointed to his job asking him to carry on the fight for B.C.'s lumber industry as he had in his previous job as the CEO of Canfor. I was disappointed not to receive any response, but I am more disappointed for him because it is obvious that he was not able to make his case to his cabinet colleagues. I am disappointed for the thousands of Canadians employed in the softwood lumber industry who had high hopes that he would be able to prompt action from his chosen political party on both the softwood lumber dispute with the United States and the mountain pine beetle crisis.
I am encouraged by the opportunity this evening to bring this crisis to light on the floor of the House of Commons and to air possible solutions. However I seriously question the sincerity of the government's concern for the future of western Canada's forest industry. When the industry minister was the CEO of Canfor at the time the federal government announced its paltry softwood aid package two years ago, he said, “It's not enough and it's coming a little late in the game”.