Friday, December 30, 2011

Forest Resilience, Biodiversity

At the New Year we like to look for signs of hope.  BC's public forests have a high level of forest resilience and that gives hope for the future. Forest resilience means that a forest will return to its original conditions and functions after it has been disturbed. Indigenous virgin forests, like those in BC, have greater resilience because diverse ecosystem components are there to effect recovery.  A considerable area of forest has regenerated naturally, and even in areas that are replanted there is usually some naturally regenerated trees. Ground vegetation and soil organisms remain or recover in time. In areas that are replanted with nursery seedlings, there is considerable likelihood that the seed came from a similar natural forest at the same elevation. Forests on the coast of BC will return to old growth conditions in about 100 years, if left alone.

The photograph shows a forest road on the coast of BC.  There is a strong growth of alder trees on both sides of the road about a decade after the road was built and used for harvesting. Unlike other alder trees, the coastal red alder can fix atmospheric nitrogen in association with root organisms. Red alder functions in coastal ecosystems to colonize areas of soil disturbance. It can get nitrogen from the atmosphere, so it can grow on bare mineral soil with little or no nitrogen. In nature, it goes to work on a landslide or avalanche disturbances that leave bare soil behind. When man comes along to harvest, alder goes to work  to stabilize bare soil on cut and fill slopes along roads.

Locally based forest management is better placed to understand and work with the resiliency components of the local landscape. Centralized forest management is more likely to try to impose interventions on the local landscape that are out of tune with local ecosystem functions. Forest ecosystems are complex and sometimes even resiliency can be a mixed blessing. Red alder with its ability to fix nitrogen has been used by European foresters for benefit. Red alder has been mixed with other trees on nitrogen poor sites to increase the growth of all the trees. If you look at the immediate foreground of the photo above you will see a Scotch Broom plant. It is an alien invasive species from the Mediterranean. It has invaded some rare plant ecosystems such as Gary oak and it can crowd out other species and become a fire hazard. Its function in its native ecosystems is to colonize and vegetate bare mineral soil and it has also got the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. It has the same ecosystem function as Red alder but in a different ecosystem.
It has found its place in a BC ecosystem by doing its job. It has found employment and eradication is no longer a real option. Red alder will remain to compete with the new species.

While BC has a few problems with the resiliency of alien species, resilient native plants prevail in BC's forest ecosystems even after disturbances of forest road building and harvesting. To sustain indigenous forest ecosystem conditions in the long term, BC needs to move toward  more devolved and local system of forest management.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Corporations Vs Charities

Anthony Britneff

In British Columbia, a province rich in natural resources, a large disparity exists between corporations and charities in the amount of funding and time that each may devote to engaging in discussions of public policy. This disparity is undermining the public interest.

Why should you care about who influences British Columbia’s resource policy? It is you who own 94 per cent of the land and all the freshwater. Thus you, the public, are the principal stakeholders with the largest vested interest.

When it comes to influencing government in Ottawa and Victoria about resource policy some of you may think that charities carry the most weight but their financial influence is minuscule compared to that of corporations.

It is not that charities are not influential, but only that the funding and time they are able to devote to discussing public policy is not commensurate with that of corporations.  They are actually restricted from devoting more than 10 per cent of their resources to matters of public policy. Corporations, however, are unrestricted except for the registration of lobbyists; and the funding and time they may spend on the lobbying of legislators, advertising and publicity is also unlimited.

Unlike corporations, charities cannot fund political candidates, endorse political parties or deduct expenses related to policy advocacy against tax. Also, they have to seek money from foundations and individuals.

Given the harmful disparity between the power and influence of corporations and charities, federal and provincial governments need to amend the law in order to achieve parity. For instance:

1.   By raising fees both provincially and federally for corporate lobbyists by tens of millions of dollars and redistributing those fees to charities thereby increasing their capacity to access legislators.
2.   By increasing the percentage amount of the funding and time that charities can devote to discussing and influencing public policy.
3.   By eliminating donations to, and endorsements of, political parties and candidates by corporations and industrial associations.

Some of you may already be saying, “Charities are special interest groups and are not representative of the general public”. But is that really the case?

Charities are just as much special interest groups as industrial associations. Both have members that are stakeholders and both engage in public policy discussions in the interests of their membership. Industrial associations are no more representative of the general public than are charities.  

In British Columbia, some government officials have gone much further than engaging representatives of corporations in the discussion of public policy and the review of draft laws.  In one instance, industrial legal representatives participated actively with public servants in the writing of resource laws and regulations thereby undermining the democratic responsibility of government to represent all citizens and possibly compromising the impartiality of public servants to act in the public interest.  

In general, corporate private interest in the influencing of public policy and in the exploitation of natural resources tends to affect adversely the environment, social justice and respect for indigenous rights, all of which are policy concerns encompassed by charities.

Added to these policy concerns, the world’s financial system that drives corporate growth has become unstable. It depends upon perpetual economic growth at the expense of the natural world resulting in the consumption of the Earth’s resources beyond the capacity of the carbon cycle to supply fossil fuels and to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

Consequently, climate change is compounding the damage resource corporations do to the environment by changing the natural world, by disrupting the availability of food, by making clean freshwater ever scarcer, and by displacing indigenous groups, even in Canada.  

Yet, Canada still has reasons for optimism in dealing with climate change and in preventing harm to environmental and human health through the exploitation of resources. To ensure that legislators improve resource laws and policies they need to hear and discuss not only the economic perspective of private interests but also perspectives on the environment, social justice and indigenous rights, all of which are public interests that charities collectively work to advance.

So what can you do to curb the excessive power and financial influence of resource corporations? You can write or talk to your MLA and MP.  You could also make a new year’s resolution to join, or donate to, a charity or other non-governmental organization that will champion your policy concerns, values and beliefs, which corporations and industrial organizations disregard. 

Anthony Britneff had a 40-year career with the B.C. Forest Service. He was inspired to write this article by the need in British Columbia for an integrated energy and climate-change policy and for improved provincial laws regulating forestry, oil and gas, and especially water. This article previously published by Victoria Times Colonist

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Parks and biodiversity

Mountain lions, bears, woodpeckers, ravens, owls are some of the animals found in BC's coastal rain forest. An old growth forest can be quite dark on a rainy day in winter. Some less illustrious creatures go about their business in this moist environment. One of the most common creatures is Ariolimax columbianus, the banana slug that feeds and helps to breakdown living and dead material.   Recycling of organic matter is a major task on the coastal rain forest. The banana slug is a very large slug but we give it little attention. Most of the others engaged in recycling are much smaller in size often a millimeter or less. Collembola are some of these tiny organisms, usually found in the soil, but there are also some working high in the canopy of these old growth trees.

Parks or protected areas are intended to be reservoirs of of diversity. My volunteer work of rebuilding trails in the park gives an opportunity to observe people. Most are very polite Canadians that thank you for improving the trail. Some are even ecstatic that the removal of tripping hazards will enable them to look at the park instead of their feet as they hike. The encounters with Homo sapiens are almost entirely pleasant. Rare encounters with the eco-fanatic human run a different course. The first indication is rather concentrated staring. They seem to see a Viking helmet with horns instead of my old toque. They have encountered an Eco-vandal. Usually a hyperventilating rant ensues.

The large slab of rock that has been blocking the trail for years has been moved off the trail to the side with some effort because it weighs several hundred pounds. It has been moved carefully so the moss has not been knocked off the surface. In the process the rock has been rotated about 60 degrees. An obstructive hazard has been moved two feet off the trail. The rock looks the same to me as it did when it was almost blocking the trail. However to the fine sensitivities of the eco-fanatic it is now a major aesthetic impact on the park. A vituperation ensues worthy of a philistine that has just taken a sledge hammer to Michelangelo's David.

Parks are full of diversity

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Nature based economic development for BC's forest dependent communities.

Tourism is already a major contributor to the BC economy. It adds approximately $12 Billion to the economy each year. BC is sold under the heading of "Super Natural BC", but are we doing enough to attract tourists. Switzerland with an area of less than 5% of BC's, takes in more than twice the amount of tourist dollars. While there are considerable populations in the neighboring countries, Switzerland has been developing its nature based economy for more than 150 years.

A web site on hiking trails ( ) provides information on hiking trails throughout the world. A search on BC provides approximately 300 trails, while a search on Switzerland shows well over 2000 trails. Photographs of the trails in Switzerland demonstrate a high standard of trail construction and maintenance. The surface or tread of the trails are well prepared and free of tripping hazards. The average trail in BC is called what we call a "back country trail" built and maintained to a much lower standard. Large stones, roots and other tripping hazards are the norm on our 'back country' trails and some exhibit serious erosion, even in protected areas.

There is considerable opportunity for forest dependent communities throughout BC to expand their nature based forest economies by making their local forest landscapes more accessible for hiking and other nature based recreational activities.  Although BC Parks is celebrating its centennial this year, there is little hope that the presently underfunded Park system will see any extra money for trail building and maintenance. A local initiative manned by volunteers, donations and possibly some help from some government programs could transform towns into desirable destinations. A community based trail development initiative could develop trails on any public land in the surrounding landscape. A trail could traverse area in a timber producing forest and a park or protected area. Although BC has approximately 14% of its area designated as parks, there is an even greater area of wild natural area, that is within working forest landscapes. More than half of some timber producing forest landscapes cannot be harvested or comprise alpine area ideally suited for nature based recreation. A community trail development initiative would just need to get approval from BC Parks and the Ministry of Forests at the planning stage.

Planning and locating a trail system is a key part of a trail development project. A trail may visit several natural features in the landscape on route to its destination that might be a peak or summit or waterfall. The trail needs to be placed or located on the landscape to ensure minimal disturbance and ease of construction. Most forest dependent communities will have some that have experience in road and trail location. There are guidebooks on trail construction that can guide volunteers as they gain experience.

A forest dependent community with system of trails and interesting hikes can make itself known as a desirable destination through tourist information. The trail website mentioned previously allows uploading of routes and photographs of trail features. A trail system can increase local employment directly through  nature based guiding etc. However, the main employment benefits will be in hotels, motels, restaurants and shops. A trail system provides locals with recreation and improves access.  Alpine areas above timber producing forests may be more easily accessible from higher elevation forest roads.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Forests,Human Ecology, Modernity

This massive spruce tree towers toward the sky on the west coast of Vancouver Island. There is soil, mosses and habitat on top of the large branches. This tree is natural vertical piece of living biodiversity. Forty or fifty years ago this tree would have been called "decadent".  We might suppose that ignorance was the reason for such a term and that we are now much more knowledgeable and aware. However, the term "decadent" came because we thought that we were knowledgeable and making progress.

Human ecology looks at the effects of humans on ecosystems. Some even suggest that we are in a new geologic age of the anthropocene where earth will be most altered by human activity. Humans are driven by ideas. Forestry is rooted in modernity. The first modern forestry was the re-establishment of forests in Europe in the late 1700's. Forests had been hammered by overuse. Modern scientific forestry would see to the establishment of orderly forests. The Germans set about the planting of orderly forests, often mono-cultures. By the mid 1800's, some German foresters began to have doubts about man made forests of trees standing to attention in rows. They thought that forests should be managed more along the lines of natural indigenous forests. This was the same idea as what is now known as forest ecosystem management. Non clear-cutting silviculture systems such as shelterwood and selection silvicultural systems were the management techniques developed in Europe to produce more natural, irregular and less even aged forests.

Modernity was based on the idea of improvement of the human condition by the application of knowledge in agriculture, industry and commerce. This single meta-narrative has got a bit confused by events such as the unsinkable Titanic, gas chambers, and use of atomic weapons. Soviet communism was also an exercise in modernity. The idea of improvement is often blamed on Christianity, but it seems to be grounded in human pride.  European foresters were given a lesson in humility by the forest and coined the dictum "Work with nature or you will be defeated".  The "meek shall inherit the earth" is a narrative that exists in European forestry along side the agricultural notion that forests and trees are just another crop that can be manipulated and controlled by humans.

Forests are usually more complex than our human tendency to whittle things down to a few narratives or ideologies. Mere mention of a climax ecosystem will get the attention of any green ears. Heather moors in Scotland are climax ecosystems with an acidified organic layer of peat that leached iron downward into the soil to form a cemented layer. Scottish foresters used bulldozers to pull forest plows through the moors to mix the organic with the mineral layers and improve the soil drainage. Forests were planted with a strong representation of trees from BC. Was this an exercise in anthropocentric vandalism using alien species or a helpful human nudge to create a new forest environment?

Some of North America's early leading foresters went to Europe to study forestry in the late 1800's. They were immersed in the new nature based forestry of shelterwood and selection silviculture systems. They returned to North America and rejected the new nature based notion of forest management. Natural fires were more prevalent in North America, so the "work with nature" notion was out. Fires had to be controlled. Fire fighting became a cornerstone of North American forestry. Man would take on nature and win. Clear- cutting and artificial regeneration of forests was also part of this outlook.

Forest fire fighting in North America in the Twentieth Century, was more than Smokey the Bear. It involved the application of improving technologies. Manned fire lookouts were replaced by infrared sensing devices that would identify new fires for speedy dispatch of aerial fighters in the form of water bombers and helicopter transported fire fighters. British Columbia spent millions on forest fire fighting and technology.

Fire fighting meant that wood was being saved for forest industry. Economics achieved special status after World War II and it would see to an expanding economy and freedom from major economic depression. Forest fire fighting made a good fit with this idea. Most of the forests in BC had been retained in public ownership at the start of the Twentieth Century to ensure that they would have independent professional forest management. After World War II, BC Government administrations forgot that the foundation of a strong forest economy is good forest stewardship and gave economic growth the priority. Government allocated most of BC's public timber to a few forest corporations under administrative pricing and the management of public forests was shared by Government and forest corporations. Forestry in BC was turned into a modern mass production machine. Forest companies built big saw and pulp mill plants and harvested the best timber available. Government provided the fire fighting. The independent professional forester was turned into a specialized assembly line worker for the machine.

The modern forestry machine in BC was also driven by the idea that older virgin forests are not growing as fast as young replacement forest stands. Old virgin forest stands were termed "decadent" because they did not fit the model of modern industrial forest management. The whole idea of modern industrial forest management seemed to work well for decades. Money was made by harvesting the best timber and converting it to dollars.

We forgot that it was not modern industrial forest management that provided the dollars. It was really nature that grew these forests. On the coast of BC, the virgin forests had huge trees with quality wood that easily covered the costs of logging on mountains. Forest industry harvested the best timber that nature had grown. The interior of BC has fire dominated ecosystems where nature coped by having a short lived species. Lodge pole pine was adapted to these landscapes. The Government's fire fighting machine also did most of its work in these landscapes. It went in and saved Lodge pole pine for industry.
Even in a fire dominated landscape things are never simple. Some plateaus and slopes will see a greater frequency of fires than moist niches in the topography. These places will have older larger trees and species. While Government was busy fighting fires in these landscapes, forest industry was busy going after the best timber. Forest industry was not harvesting enough Lodge pole pine. The net result of government and forest industry management efforts in these fire dominated landscapes was to build considerable reserves of old Lodge pole pine trees. European foresters know that this species grows fast and straight when young but tends to stagnate and become susceptible to decline when it gets old. The home indigenous environment of BC has a way of getting the old lodge pole pine out of the way. The mountain pine beetle will supply this service when Lodge pole pine reaches 80 years old. A huge feast of million of hectares of old lodge pole pine was prepared by industrial forest management for the mountain pine beetle. A super epidemic of mountain pine beetle has munched its way through more than 13 million hectares of forest, or about $100 Billion worth of timber.

The super epidemic of mountain pine beetle in BC, and also western USA is perhaps the greatest defeat of modern industrial forest management in the history of forestry. We should realize our pride and mistakes and look toward some new legal and institutional structures that will provide true local care of forest ecosystems. Modern centralized government and corporate command and control organisations are counter to the needs of local forest ecosystems.

Unfortunately, we have not realized that nature has defeated industrial forest management in BC. Public relations and propaganda are a key part of modern organisations. It works by toning down problems and ensuring us that all is well. Propaganda works well when its case rests on some of the truth but not the whole truth. Propaganda works well in forestry. Forest environments are complex with many factors involved. The public wants simple easy to understand answers. The public in BC has been told that warm winters caused increased over winter survival of mountain pine beetles. This is quite true. It is why the mountain pine beetle range extends into BC. BC gets mild winters because it is situated on the Pacific Ocean. Natural outbreaks of the beetle have, and will occur in BC. The present super epidemic is different because of the immense amount of mountain pine beetle habitat that was created by the BC Government and forest industry engaging in industrial forest management that had little regard for the normal functions of forest ecosystems.

Is it the big virgin spruce tree sitting in a sea of young forest on a Vancouver Island,  the decadent organism? Perhaps we ourselves are decadent.