The Osoyoos Indian Band is “cautiously optimistic” that a deal can be struck with forest industry giant Weyerhaeuser over an allotment of wood fibre in order to keep its band-owned sawmill operating and divert a major conflict in the woods of the Okanagan Timber Supply Area (TSA).
The Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB) has been at odds with Weyerhaeuser over a yearly allotment of 30,000 cubic metres of lodgepole pine promised to the band by Weyerhaeuser.
A briefing document prepared by Chris Scott, Chief Operating Officer for the OIB identifies the problem. On July 23, 2000, the OIB opened a sawmill on band lands in partnership with Bitterroot Valley Forest Products. The mill employs 11 band members with the finished wood exported south to the United States.
The mill was started with the clear understanding that the dry log fibre supply would be made available to the OIB through Weyerhaeuser Canada Ltd. But Weyerhaeuser subsequently reneged on the agreement, refusing to supply the wood fibre. The company pointed to the Ministry of Forests (MOF) for a solution.
The ministry, on the other hand, says that the provincial legislature must provide legislation to allow the fibre supply to be increased, thus allowing Weyerhaeuser to meet the fibre request by the OIB.
At a press conference in Vancouver on February 26, 2002, Chief Louie outlined the problem.
“We have spent the past 14 months negotiating with both Ministry of Forest officials and Weyerhaeuser executives and all that has happened is constant buck passing with neither party willing to actually live up to the promises to us,” said Chief Louie.
“Even the province’s own Job Protection Commissioner has investigated this matter and concluded we do have a viable mill operation worth saving. Yet our mill stands idle and our workers remain unemployed,” said Louie.
The OIB has had a working relationship with Weyerhaeuser since 1995 when the parties signed a Cooperative Working Agreement which, among other things, stipulated the two parties “Jointly identify and develop business and/or commercial opportunities that may arise in the areas of accessing new forest tenures and new processing facilities (emphasis added).
Two years later, on July 2 , 1997, the OIB, the Spallumcheen Indian Band, Weyerhaeuser and Canwood entered into a limited partnership on a forest license for the purposes of harvesting. The OIB created Inkameep Forestry Corp. specifically to hold its interest in the license.
Then on February 28, 2000, the seven forest license holders in the Okanagan Timber Supply Area (TSA), of which Weyerhaeuser was one, signed a Cooperative Forestry Agreement.
The objective of the agreement is to provide licensees with opportunities to advance their interests through new cooperative arrangements with First Nations in the Okanagan TSA.
The general intent of the agreement was that the licenses would surrender part of their allowable annual cut (AAC) to the province for the purposes of Interim Measures Agreements (IMAs) between British Columbia and those First Nations of the Okanagan TSA who enter into IMAs in the context of treaty negotiations.
According to Joe McGinnis, head of forestry operations for the OIB, both MOF and Weyerhaeuser urged the OIB to enter into an IMA to obtain the 30,000 cubic metres of wood fibre.
“They led us to believe that we could achieve an IMA outside of the treaty process. We felt they were trying to force us into a treaty scenario. But the band felt we would be acting outside of our authority as part of the Okanagan Nation Alliance, ” said McGinnis.
McGinnis said that the 14 months of protracted negotiations focussed on that issue.
At the Feb. 28 press conference Chief Louie called on the Campbell government to resolve the growing dispute before the conflict escalates into direct action by band members who feel they have a right to a share of the resources of their traditional territories.
But the province insists that the negotiation of the wood supply be conducted under a treaty process initiative. In other words, the wood fibre supply would be granted in return for the OIB entering the treaty process.
“Every year between Princeton and Okanagan Falls, Weyerhaeuser harvests over 950,000 cubic metres of wood. All we are looking for is access to 30,000 cubic metres of wood,” explained Louie.
“The previous government was focussed on process; the new government said they are focussed on results. It is now time for the provincial government to step up to the plate so we can reach a deal all parties can work with. Otherwise we face the prospect of seeing all forestry operations in the Okanagan Valley affected by this dispute,” said Louie.
In a letter to Forests Minister Mike de Jong, Chief Louie warned to move quickly to avoid the potential shutting down of all non-native forestry operations in the Okanagan Valley.
“As the most business-oriented band in Canada, we hope that the Campbell government has the political will to include First Nations in the economy of BC,” states the letter.
Chief Louie and COO Chris Scott met with de Jong, local MLA Bill Barisoff and Tom Sheldon of MOF the following week and the parties agreed to set up a tri-partite meeting with OIB, Weyerhaeuser and MOF by the end of March.
“British Columbia’s forestry legislation was never designed to allow First Nations direct participation in this sector,” noted Chief Louie.
“However, amending that legislation will take at least 12 months. So, as minister de Jong stated, any interim arrangement will require the cooperation of Weyerhaeuser. It is for that reason that Minister de Jong has agreed to set up another meeting by the end of March that will include Weyerhaeuser.
Forestry operations manager for OIB Joe McGinnis noted that a review of the region’s annual allowable cut is coming up and commented, ” In light of the recent Haida decision by the BC Court of Appeal, we expect Weyerhaeuser to follow the court’s directives, which include accomodating the cultural and economic interest of the First Nations territory in which they are operating.”