by LAURA KEIL
Despite many changes at the McBride Community Forest Corp (MCFC) over the past year, members of the public voiced their frustration at the pace of change at last weekend’s annual general meeting.
A year after consultants took over management of the McBride Community Forest to help “turn the ship around,” the new Community Forest board was once again appointed, not elected.
During a public Q&A following the AGM, McBride resident and former mill owner Tom Ryan did an informal poll of the audience to see how many people thought the board directors should be elected by the public at large.
Excluding media and government officials, roughly three quarters of the room raised their hands.
“If something goes dramatically wrong with the Community Forest it will become the liability of the Village and every taxpayer within this village,” Ryan said.
“I think we all agreed at the last (municipal) election that we wanted to sever control from the Village,” he said.
Mayor of McBride Loranne Martin said under the Business Corporation Act, the shareholder always appoints the board at the AGM and the board they have now has both local knowledge and forestry experience.
Council member Rick Thompson asked for clarification as to why more names were not put forward for consideration. While seven people had applied to sit on the board, only four names were put forward, including two existing board members.
Martin said they ran an expression of interest for new board directors and names were selected by the existing board members.
“The board decided that given the fact we just went through two massive orientation sessions to get new directors up to speed, rather than start from scratch, we would prefer the slate of candidates that we have.”
The new board is comprised of Randy McFarland, Gary McFarland, Joe Rich, and Bryan Monroe. Board members will have two-year terms, with half the board replaced each year to stagger replacements.
The board appointments were salt in the wound for a public hungry for change to the structure of the Community Forest, which helps supply the last of McBride’s industry jobs.
This meeting was an opportunity to do things differently, said Gene Runtz, a registered professional forester. But the public once again was excluded from the decision making.
“So now we’re stuck with the same thing we already had,” Runtz said during the public portion of the meeting. “And for that reason, I would ask the board members who just got voted on to resign.”
With good-paying jobs at stake in a struggling town, the steering of the community forest is a sensitive issue and was at the heart of platforms during the last municipal election. The Village of McBride is the sole shareholder of the Community Forest, meaning that the Village Council has ultimate authority over the organization.
Members of the public have long sought to make the community more transparent and for decisions to have more public input.
The frustration at this year’s AGM was palpable, with several community members raising their voices.
BKB Cedar mill owner Raj Basran spoke about the effort of local people to provide forestry jobs.
“Over the years we didn’t have the money. We didn’t have the huge investments. We didn’t have the banks backing us up. We had the hard work and we had a good heart.”
He said the reason why people are not investing in McBride is lack of trust in the local leadership, especially with turnover during municipal elections every three years.
“We cannot run long-term businesses with (every) three to four years a drastic leadership change.”
Martin responded by saying they are doing their best to meet local needs.
“I think everyone has seen we are bending over backwards to get cedar to the local mills and not lose money.”
People at the meeting questioned the lapsed cutting permit in September which has resulted in the MCFC having to shut down logging.
“We’re not ducking any aspect of this,” said McWilliams, saying he has been in regular communication with the two companies harvesting trees from their two blocks.
“It was our responsibility. It was a mistake. We thought we had another year on the permit and we didn’t.”
“We regret the negative impacts the cutting permit expiry has had on local businesses and their employees.”
He says they’ve been working extremely hard with government to fix the situation. He told the Goat on Monday that the MCFC should have a Forest License to Cut (FLCTC) in place this week which will allow felled and bucked Grade 4 Cedar to be delivered to local mills from Block 29 (under the BKB Cedar mill contract). He says they hope to have another cutting license by early November to allow felled and bucked Grade 4 Cedar in Block 23 to be delivered to local mills and they expect the new Forest Stewardship Plan and Cutting Permit will be approved by mid-January.
The cutting permit snafu is just one in a seemingly never-ending series of unfortunate events. In its 14 years, the MCFC has faced numerous logging infractions resulting in fines and remediation, including one riparian zone investigation still ongoing.
In mid-2015, the MCFC manager had cut down far more trees than was allowed by their permit. The manager was let go in August.
Worse still was the revelation that the manager had sold wood to loggers at far below the market price, essentially giving away potential community profit to the loggers, as the Goat has previously reported.
Now MCFC is faced with a significant drop in the amount it can log for the next several years, with few reserves in the bank due to the alleged sweetheart deals handed out in the past.
McWilliams says they are on track to have another $220,000 loss in 2016, partly due to settling a suit with the former manager and partly due to their taking a loss to ensure continued cedar supply.
The loss will not just affect loggers and future logging. MCFC will not have discretionary funds for grants as they have in the past, McWilliams notes. In 2015 they doled out $22,630 to 15 local organizations.
But the managers are keen to point out that change takes time and they have been working hard.
They have been working on a Standing Timber Inventory in order to catalogue what forest resources exist and to plan into the future. They have spent tens of thousands laying out new logging blocks. They have engaged the community with a survey about governance and direction for the Community Forest. They have also updated policies, insurance and logging contracts to better protect the corporation.
Right now they are working on a new Forest Stewardship Plan which they hope to have approved by January.
McWilliams says they are trying to juggle balancing the books, supplying local cedar to mills with the reduced annual allowable cut – a difficult task.
Community Forest consultant Susan Mulkey says changing the structure of the organization requires the shareholder, the public and several arms of the Province.
“There’s a lot of due diligence that has to be done,” she says.
“I get that it’s hard to have the patience, but your community forest was like a bus that had been driven off a cliff,” she told the room. “You can only move as fast as you can move when there’s a whole bunch of stuff wrong with the bus.”
“But it’s quite amazing, as an outside person, that I think the bus is now on the road.”