Saturday, October 15, 2011

Rethinking forestry on the BC Coast

A prefabricated timber frame kit made with quality wood grown on the BC coast

The forest industry on the BC coast has been experiencing problems for about 20 years.  While there have been ups and downs in the economy, the underlying problem is in the woods. The industry was the main driver of the BC economy when it was harvesting high volume stands of virgin timber. Troubles surfaced when there was a transition to harvesting second growth and the least desirable virgin forest stands.

Most of the timber harvest on the BC coast is mountain logging requiring the use of cable yarding machines to move logs to the road. Road construction and log handling is more expensive than on gentle terrain. High volumes of timber in virgin stands enabled costs to be covered. Although second growth stands have grown rapidly and productively, there is less timber volume per unit area of harvest and this tends to drive costs upward. Actual harvests have been less than allowable harvests because it is too costly to harvest some areas.

Forest management in BC is centralized and fragmented.  The rapid harvest of virgin timber was based on the calculations of foresters in penthouse offices of forest corporations in Vancouver and BC Government offices in Victoria. The statistics supported the rapid harvest of virgin timber since the second growth would grow rapidly to provide replacement harvest in future. The calculations were generally correct, but the specialist foresters that worked with the timber volume figures did not look farther than projected timber volumes. The value of the timber volume and the feasibility and costs of harvest were not considered.

A more provident approach would have been a less rapid schedule for replacing virgin old growth with second growth. This would have provided a longer and more manageable period of transition. The first of the second growth harvested would have been older with greater volume per unit area. This would have reduced unit costs of harvesting second growth and the timber would have been more valuable and suitable for a wider range of uses and markets.

 Present difficult circumstances are pointing toward increasing the length of rotation (time between successive harvests).  45 million cubic meters of timber have been left unharvested since 2005. This means that considerable areas of coastal forests will be left to grow older and more valuable. However, this value can only be realized if there is a more diversified wood products manufacturing industry on the BC coast.  Log exports are another potential solution for some of the unharvested volume. It could provide some  jobs and cash at present. Log exports should be seen as a symptom of our problem. If someone can transport BC logs across the Pacific Ocean at a time of high fuel costs and manufacture them at a profit, they may have the benefit of lower labour costs but they are most likely extracting higher value from more diversified wood products. To gain the benefit of coastal wood, we need to diversify our wood product manufacture to achieve greater value. Growing larger timber of higher quality fits the terrain and forest circumstances of the BC coast. It makes a better economic and ecological fit than the present commodity wood products focus.

Public forests were intended to result in diversified wood product manufacturing industries because public wood could be purchased by a variety of entrepreneurs. In BC, this benefit of public forests was lost when most of the wood was allocated to an oligopoly of a few commodity producing forest companies. The path to diversity of manufacture of coastal timber remains blocked by these arrangements. A sustainable future means that we have to change our arrangements for managing and selling wood from our public forests.

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