ENVIRONMENT : British Columbia Runs Into Buzz Saw of Criticism on Plan to Log Rain Forest : The provincial government bought shares in the firm that got the concession.


With its spectacular coastline, lush forests and busy environmental activists, British Columbia has long proclaimed itself Canada's "supernatural" province. In recent months, however, that motto has come in for ridicule from environmentalists angered by the province's clear-cut logging practices.

Foremost among their concerns is British Columbia's most treasured piece of real estate: the pristine rain forest of Clayoquot Sound, on Vancouver Island. The province's left-leaning, New Democratic government bitterly disappointed conservationists in mid-April, when Premier Michael Harcourt announced a decision to allow two-thirds of Clayoquot to be logged.

The sound's wind-swept fiords, wild shores and mist-shrouded cedars on the island's western side provide the sort of landscape that has grown hard to find elsewhere on Vancouver Island, where the forest industry has logged tract after tract.

Officials were unprepared for the local and international outcry that followed their decision to sacrifice the largest intact temperate rain forest in North America to commercial interests. They insist the government has kept a 1991 campaign promise to double the extent of "protected" land in the province.

But they have been further embarrassed by revelations that the government bought shares in forest-products giant MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. only weeks before it decided to let the company log two-thirds of the 864,000-acre tract. The arrangement is under investigation.

Conservationists say because the forest industry is the province's economic mainstay, the government favors the industry.

The social democratic government is also closely tied to organized labor, and reluctant to enact policies that might eliminate well-paid forestry jobs in exchange for the relatively low-paid, wilderness-tourism jobs.

"British Columbia, economically, is almost a Third World country," said Greg MacDade, a Sierra Legal Defense Fund attorney. "The percentage of raw-material income from exports fits . . . a Third World nation . . . the percentage of (manufacturing income) is minuscule."

Across Canada, MacDade noted, provincial governments routinely promote, rather than discourage, resource exploitation.

"Shutting down the forest industry will lose a lot of jobs, a lot of income tax and . . . fees," he said. "It's economically simply not feasible."

In carving up Clayoquot Sound, the government announced a plan that spared so-called "scenic corridors" between blocks of clear-cutting, but critics charge that the protected parcels are no more than unproductive areas at high elevations or in low-lying bogs.

Conservation biologists question whether the government has done enough to preserve the biological diversity of an increasingly rare ecosystem. The province's environment minister, John Cashore, has conceded that some species would be lost if logging is allowed around Clayoquot Sound.

Although local Indians and environmentalists recently spurned an offer of help from California-based eco-guerrilla Paul Watson, who wanted to teach locals how to sabotage logging, more moderate conservation groups have begun collecting donations to build a boardwalk through the ancient trees, so that British Columbia's increasingly concerned urbanites can enjoy better access to them.

Mindful of the impact such campaigns have had on timber harvesting in America's Pacific Northwest, loggers are accusing the activists of destroying jobs. Conservationists argue in turn that high-volume, mechanized extraction and export of logs, with little or no value added, is responsible for job losses--as well as for depleting timber supplies.

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