Sunday, October 17, 2010

Wise Forest Policy

The BC Government's first priority to our Crown or public forests is to ensure wise forest policy. A Royal Commission on BC's forests in 1909 was aware that future government administrations might fail in this duty to the public. We have had a century's worth of performance to evaluate.

Has forest policy in BC moved in a wise direction? You decide.

We have Crown or public forests so that they would be kept out of the hands of timber interests. The Crown owns the forest on behalf of the public so that they can be supplied with independent professional forest management. The intended outcome is a healthy competitive forest industry and forest dependent communities. Contrary to the original intent, the central feature of forest policy in BC is the system of forest tenure that assigns private rights to forest corporations to harvest public timber. We do not have the intended outcomes.

Foresters will bore you with explanations of the different types of harvesting rights in public forests. The harvesting rights can be lumped into one category. They are all usufructs. A usufruct is the right to harvest the crops from some one else's land. It was developed by the Romans and the word has the root of the English words use and fruit. BC's forest tenure system gives rights to use the fruits of the forest. Reflect on the wisdom of giving timber interests or loggers rights to log your forest.

If you give a logger a fruit picking licence he will go after strawberries and cream rather than bread and butter. The coastal forests of BC have been creamed of their best most accessible timber. The coastal forest industry is in a tight spot as it deals with the remaining less accessible timber and smaller second growth. In the interior of BC, the bread and butter species, Lodge Pole Pine was left to grow old and become susceptible to mountain pine beetle attack. A massive mountain pine beetle epidemic has affected over 13 million hectares and has robbed forest dependent communities in the interior of BC of $100 Billion in economic activity.

The system of private timber rights in our public forests has complicated forest management. Without clarity of tenure, no one owns stewardship responsibility. There has been talk of tenure reform for several decades, but BC Governments have never initiated any form of commission or inquiry. An open public discussion on forest tenure would reveal two different directions. We can restore clarity of tenure by increasing private rights and moving toward privatization of our public forests. Or we can reassert public ownership and develop new forest management institutions that provide direct management on behalf of the public.

BC is moving toward the default option of increasing private rights in public forests. Forest management responsibilities have been transferred to forest companies. This route ends in privatization.

The public relations efforts of BC forest corporations create a picture of top notch forest stewardship in BC's public forests. The only time they depart from this rosy picture is the use of the "Tragedy of the Commons" argument. It plays into the privatization argument by suggesting that any land in common or public ownership will be misused or abused.

The "Tragedy of the Commons" theory was developed by Garrett Hardin in the 1960s. His theory is about the "Tragedy of Freedom in a Commons". Users of a commons have a tendency to try to exercise their own interests and overuse a common. They may put too many animals out to graze on the common pasture. The result is an inevitable decline.

BC's public forests were never managed like a common with use of timber open to many users. The freedom to use timber in BC's forests is held by a small number of forest corporations that manufacture commodity forest products. The decline in the coastal forest industry and the huge mountain pine beetle epidemic in the interior is a result of their freedom to choose the timber to harvest. They were also provided freedom from market competition for public timber. This reduced the diversity of BC's wood products manufacturing and made BC forest products vulnerable to discriminatory export tariffs and taxes.

Hardin's "Tragedy of Freedom in a Commons" argument does not make a good case for privatization of BC forest resources. Rather, it points to the need for institutional reforms to curb the freedom of corporations to engage in intemperate use of our public forests.

The study of commons, or common pool resources has advanced since Hardin's "Tragedy of the commons". Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for her work on commons. She found that local people can an do manage commons and sustain their resources. Different societies have developed various informal and formal institutions to ensure temperate use of resources. In the case of large common pool resources, such as BC's public forests, the base building block should be local rather than central institutions.

This blog champions wise forest policy for the 21st Century, featuring democratic local forest trusts supported by a BC Forest Trust Assembly governed by delegates from the local forest trusts.