Friday, January 21, 2011

The Freedom of the Forest

We do not fully appreciate freedom until we lose it. We enjoy special freedoms in British Columbia. BC is defined by its forests and the public owns 95% of them. This gives us freedom of access to a huge area of forest and wilderness. Although 13% of B C is protected area or parks, there is an even greater area of wilderness within landscapes that also support forest operations. We have the freedom to enjoy our forests and wide open spaces.
Public ownership of forests is an institution intended to ensure good forest stewardship. Good forest stewardship supplies a society with important freedoms. Freedom from economic hardship results from wisely managed forests. Public forests were intended to encourage freedom of enterprise in wood manufacture. Good forest stewardship gives us clean water, fish, wildlife, intact biodiversity, healthy forests, carbon fixing, and aesthetic forest landscapes. City dwellers and folk in forest dependent communities benefit from these freedoms.
We surrendered some of these freedoms in the arrangements we made to manage public forests. At the end of the Second World War, we wanted economic development so we gave timber harvesting rights to forest corporations. This idea seemed to work well initially. High quality timber from our virgin forests supplied booming markets. Our arrangements for managing BC's public forests have been failing for about 40 years. Instead of developing new arrangements for an era of sustainable forest management, we keep trying to prop up the old ones. In the process, our public forests are being gradually conveyed to the private interest.
By the 1970's, industrial timber management in public forests was challenged by a generation that saw forests as more than just timber to be turned into dollars. Conflicts with the environmental movement developed into some of the largest incidents of civil disobedience in Canadian history. In the 1980's, US timber supplies were recovering from previous forest exploitation and US producers were seeking increased market share. BC's system of administered prices for public timber made our wood exports vulnerable to discriminatory tariffs and export taxes.
In the 1990's, a highly regulatory Forest Practices Code was introduced. While the intent was to improve environmental stewardship, forest codes of this nature prove to be too inflexible for practical implementation. The Forest Practices Code placed forest companies in a difficult position.
In 2004, the Forest Practices Code was replaced by the Forest and Range Practices Act. It had the good intention of replacing detailed regulations with reliance on skilled forest resource professionals. Unfortunately the implementation is seriously and fundamentally flawed. We have public forests to ensure independent professional forest management. The concept of "professional reliance" of the new act relies on professionals employed by forest corporations.
Further, forest professionals work within laws that enable forest corporations get short term access to public timber. Forest companies can choose the areas of timber they want to harvest and submit a plan to government. Short term plans provide a mechanism for the forest company or the logger to go into the public forest and take the best timber and leave the rest. On the coast of BC, forest companies gorged the best most accessible timber. By the 1990's the coastal forest industry ran into difficulties when it had to face the left over's. In the interior of BC, Lodge Pole Pine was the species that was left over. Huge areas of pine forests got old and susceptible to mountain pine beetle infestation. A mountain pine beetle epidemic, much larger than a natural event has affected over 13 million hectares of forest. The public relations efforts of government and forest industry have blamed this $100 Billion loss of timber on climate change. Short term piecemeal harvest plans remain under the public relations name of "Forest Stewardship Plans".
The downward slide of BC's forest industry and forest dependent communities can be traced back to a failure of the trustee, the Government of BC, to ensure independent professional management. Inviting forest corporations to share in the management of our forests was unwise. Unfortunately the present administration is trying to solve the problem by handing over greater management responsibilities to forest industry. Our forests will remain in nominal public ownership, but will be managed by forest corporations for their interests.
We do not need to accept the creeping privatization of our forests that has be underway for over 60 years and is intensifying. One promising alternative is a return to independent professional forest management under local forest trusts. These trusts would have an elected board and professional managers. The trust documents would require management of timber, non timber and nature based forest resources to sustainable forest management standards defined by the international Montreal Process. Auditing and support of local trusts at the Provincial level would be accomplished by a BC Forest Trust Assembly governed by delegates from local forest trusts. The trusts would operate on a business basis with logs being sold to an open market. First Nations could have local trusts within the system.

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