Sunday, June 5, 2011

Stumps in a clearcut

What do you see in the photo? If you are an environmentalist, you are probably ranting and venting. Just think about the tree that used to be on that big stump. The tree on the big stump was cut over fifty years ago. The two small stumps next to it were the target of the recent harvest.
The environmental awakening and movement is now at least forty years old and environmentalists have made a lot of noise about forestry. Most of the noise has been concentrated on saving forests in natural condition from the predations of forest management. We do need to protect some forests as parks but we need more than this simple solution to solve the complexities of forest management. What about the forests that are not parks?

The biophysical relationships in a forest are complex. How a human society interacts with the forest add even more complexity. Forests tend to suffer at the hands of human society. If the society has wars, conflicts, economic or social injustice, forests tend to take harder knocks. Sustainable forest management can only take place where a stable society has developed a good relationship with the forest.

If we look back to the photo, one does not get the impression that all is well with the relationship with Canadian and BC society and the forest. Canadians are generally peaceable, but forest management conflicts have resulted in some of the largest incidents of civil disobedience in the history of Canada. However even this interest in our forests has not progressed beyond the notion of saving forests in parks.

The photo tells a great deal about our interaction with the forest. The big stump is there because aboriginal society before the arrival of the Europeans did not cut it down. Aboriginal society did have a strong understanding of the forest landscapes that were their means of survival. They also lacked the technology to alter or beat up a forest. The story of the photo charts the progress of European expansion on the forest. We have gone from one big tree to two small ones in less than two generations. This does not appear to be a shining example of sustainability and inter-generational equity.

Aboriginal society got swept aside by the colonists. Aboriginal society suffered and understands the ills of colonialism. The rest of us do not appreciate the problems because we have allowed our forests to be managed on a colonial system to this day. Most of the folk that came from Europe wanted a better world. They wanted to escape social and economic injustice that had its roots in the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a few. Enclosure of common land was also part of the story of European feudalism. BC's Crown or public forests were reserved from private ownership, one hundred years ago, to ensure wise management of forests and provide an open market in timber to enable the small entrepreneur to have a chance.

We had visions of something better, but we reverted to the structures of colonialism and feudalism. Most Canadians live in large urban centers in the south of the country, quite far removed from the great hinterland of land and forests. It is the timber, oil, gas, minerals agricultural products from the hinterland that provides the major driving force for our exports and economy. Governments and corporations control the extraction of wealth from the hinterland from penthouse offices in these southern cities.

After WWII, the BC government allocated most of its public timber to a few forest corporations engaged in the manufacture of commodity wood products such as paper pulp and sawn lumber for stick frame construction. Wood prices were administered and there was no open market for public timber. Since other manufacturers could not get supplies of timber,secondary wood manufacturing was restricted. BC has been locked into the manufacture of low value commodity wood products. The two low value stems that came from the two small stumps are suitable for these products. Forest management is also locked into supplying low value industrial wood so we get short rotations of little trees. Lack of diversity in wood manufacture translates into lack of diversity in the forest. BC's low value wood products scheme has other downsides. The non market administered prices make our wood products vulnerable to export taxes and tariffs. Log exports were in the news again lately, with calls for a ban on log exports. Log exports are just a symptom of our low value wood utilization. If we had an open market for public timber and a diversified wood products manufacturing sector, we could use all of our logs.

A diversified wood products manufacturing sector would also be seeking more higher value logs. This would mean larger older trees and this in turn would prompt thinning and non clear cutting silvicultural systems to be used. What is needed to prompt this change toward more diverse and sustainable forest management? First there needs to be some societal change. BC's public forests are controlled by a commodity wood products oligarchy, comprising the BC Government and forest corporations. Some participatory democracy needs to be inserted. Public forests need to be independently managed and the wood products need to be sold on an open market The local forest trust with locally elected board members and a professional forest management staff selling logs on the open market to a diverse range of wood product manufacturers will give rise to healthier forests and communities

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