Sunday, January 15, 2012

The business of forestry in BC

Forestry is a major part of BC's economy.  We are now into the second decade of the 21st Century, but the talk from forest industry leaders, logging associations and the government remains the same as the the 20th Century. Discussions about the health of the forest sector center around markets and demand for lumber and pulp. To some extent these are normal and expected discussions because markets are important to any business endeavor. The peculiar aspect of these forest discussions is that the health and condition of the forest is seldom mentioned. It is as if the forests of BC are not part of the business.

The forests of BC are not seen as part of the forestry business because there is no attempt to operate and run our public forests as a business. The forests are somewhere you go to take timber and turn it into cash when wood product markets are booming. These pages champion BC's public forests, but our present arrangements for managing our public forests manages to combine the worst aspects of public ownership and private enterprise.

Public ownership of BC's forests was intended to be an institution to ensure sustainable forest management as the true foundation and bottom line for a healthy forest industry and communities. We have surely corrupted this basic intent when we see our public forests as a big pork barrel of timber to be turned into cash when markets are good. The non market allocation of timber to forest corporations is not a business like way of selling our public forest resources. Lack of true competition for public timber has restricted the diversification of the wood products manufacturing sector in BC. Most BC residents are against exporting logs. However to keep some communities going, we have to export some logs that cannot be manufactured economically in BC. The simple solution of asking for a log export ban will not work for this complex problem. Rather we need to think about our forests being run like businesses that sell wood freely on an open market. This will permit greater diversity of wood manufacture and higher returns per unit of timber. Fewer logs will be exported.

BC's system of allocating harvesting rights in public forest to forest corporations caters to the predatory aspects of corporate business. Timber can be acquired without competition from other wood manufacturers. There is incentive to get the raw material at lowest possible cost, and opportunity to offload some of the costs or losses onto the public. The BC public paid for decades of forest fire fighting. In fire dominated landscapes in the interior of BC, this meant saving large areas of Lodge pole pine from fire. Meanwhile,  corporations offloaded this expense and were greedily feasting on species more profitable than pine. The net result was large areas of aging pine stands in the interior of BC. Mountain pine beetles like pine that is greater than 80 years old, so they were able to have a feast of timber, in a mega epidemic. We fed mountain pine beetles with a $100 billion worth of public timber. This figure does not include the cost to the public for decades of firefighting to help it happen.  Most BC residents have bought the public relations spin that the epidemic was caused by warm winters and climate change.

Our public forests should be run like businesses with elected public representatives on boards supported by professional forest management staff. Income for the public forest enterprise would come from open market sale of logs, non-timber forest products and nature based enterprises. The business units should be local in scale. A government run Province wide forestry enterprise would end up as an inefficient centralized bureaucratic mess. However, more independent local forest management enterprises in the form of Local Forest Trusts with an elected board and a sufficient area of local forest landscape to permit economic operation could operate efficiently. This local form of organisation will make best use of professional resource managers because they will get to know the local ecosystems in sufficient detail to ensure sustainable productivity an ecological health. A BC Forest Trust Assembly governed by elected and professional delegates from local forest trusts would audit and support the local trusts with collective services. Existing wood manufacturers will be able to continue in a more business like environment. They will be able to buy timber. There will be competition for timber but this will result in a strong diverse wood manufacturing industry.

We, the public should blame ourselves for the present situation. We have sat on the sidelines and allowed successive BC Government administrations turn our public forests into a corporate welfare operation. We just witnessed the Occupy Movement, a global reaction to corporatism, managing to occupy a few downtown city parks in BC for a few weeks. Meanwhile forest corporation have occupied public forests for decades and seek greater hold on them. It is time we exhibited a little initiative and occupy our own public forests. How do we do this? We just need to ask for some new institutional arrangements such as local forest trusts with locally elected boards and professional management.


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