Sunday, April 29, 2012

Mountain Pine Beetle: The Hard Reality

An explosion in a sawmill in Burns Lake in January  killed two and injured 19 others, was followed by an explosion this week in a Prince George sawmill that killed two and injured 24 others. While the causes of the explosions has not been determined, fine dry sawdust and resin from dead and dry beetle killed pine is being examined as a possible cause.

Burns Lake was heavily dependent on the sawmill, but an insufficient supply of timber due to the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic has undermined the economic feasibility of reconstructing the sawmill. Sawmills in the interior of BC have been busy sawing increased volumes of timber in the attempt to salvage beetle killed timber. Dead standing timber deteriorates after a few years so the bonanza of timber from the mountain pine beetle epidemic will give way to the hard reality of the epidemic; a much reduced timber supply. Timber supply from the Lakes Timber Supply Area near Burns Lake will fall from approximately 2 million cubic meters per year to 0.5 million cubic meters per year.

There has been outcry about a leaked BC Cabinet document concerning the rebuilding of the sawmill in Burns Lake. The press has focused on one of the measures in the document that proposed relaxing the rules for protecting wildlife habitat, visually and environmentally sensitive areas to allow more harvesting and increased timber supply. Reaction has been negative and the politicians are seen as wearing black hats with bad motives. We are not going to solve much in the forest if we reduce it to a contest between the bad guys and the good guys.

Many forest dependent communities in the interior of BC are facing economic problems owing to reduced timber supply when salvage of beetle killed timber comes to an end in the next few years. Politicians are just trying to respond to this reality.  Since the situation is desperate, politicians are willing to entertain any solution. The intentions are good. BC politicians were told that their first responsibility was to see that the public forests were supplied with a wise system of independent forest management. For 100 years, they have ignored this advice and exercised their responsibility to hand out timber from public forests to create short term wealth. Even our legal and institutional framework, developed by politicians, is based on the allocation of harvesting rights. (Timber corporations get the harvesting right allocations and it is hoped that there is sufficient economic trickle down to sustain communities).

The solutions in the leaked cabinet document include:

  • Government economic supports for bio-energy to allow for the harvest and reforestation of beetle killed areas. The document does not include a thorough analysis of the economic feasibility of salvaging dead timber for energy and it appears that the Government would pick up the reforestation costs.
  • A forest fertilization program costing several million dollars per year at Government cost
  • Relaxing rules for protecting timber in wildlife habitat and visually and environmentally sensitive areas to allow greater harvest.
  • Converting to Tree farm Licenses (gives corporations greater control over public forests and a prelude to increasing privatization).
  • Persuading the Chief Forester (Ministry of Forests) to increase the annual allowable cut or passing legislation to reduce the independence of the Chief Forester in setting allowable harvest. 
 Unfortunately, even experienced forestry commentators cannot get beyond reactions of outrage with any tampering of the existing system. Reducing the independence of the Chief Forester of the Ministry of Forests could make good starting point for a tirade. Even in the present system, the independence of the Chief Forester is the last facade of independent management of public forests. Although the Chief Forester could set levels of allowable harvest, he had little control over the areas, species or quality of timber that was harvested. A lenient system allowed forest corporations to take the best timber to make the most money. Lack of sufficient control by the Chief Forester in directing sufficient harvest of Lodge Pole Pine was a major factor in the build up of old pine forests in the interior of BC. Old pine is susceptible to mountain pine beetle attack and this factor was the most important element in the larger than natural outbreak. The public have been told that the epidemic was caused by mild winters that aided beetle survival.

We are faced with the reality of a loss of  $100 Billion of timber because the existing system of lenient timber handouts from the public forests has failed miserably as a basis for sustainable management. The solutions in the leaked cabinet report are more of the same, except that Government or public funds will finance a last greedy extraction of public timber with little regard to other forest values. When the forests are much reduced in value by the continued improvidence, the stage will be set for forest corporations to take our forests off our hands for a song.

We need real solutions. Unfortunately, the milk has been spilled from both the coastal and interior forests. In our desperation, we should not agree to more improvident use of our forests in an attempt to reduce the short term pain. Rather we should build a new legal and institutional framework that will gradually restore BC's public forests and economic health to dependent communities.

The new system should not be built on who gets to take timber from public forests. Rather, it should be founded on sound and wise arrangements for independent and sustainable management of local forest landscapes. The public owns the forests and are entitled to direct accountable professional forest managers. At present, the public is only offered a facade of public involvement as politicians dole out our forests like some timber pork barrel to forest corporations. Our present forest management arrangements are a farce and an economic failure.

A Local Forest Trust with trust documents built on the Montreal Process, an international agreement on sustainable forest management would manage the local forest landscape for multiple economic benefits. The Trust would have an elected local board and professional forest managers with a strong knowledge of the local forest environment. Many local forest landscapes will suffer from a short term and mid term timber supply problem. However, sustainable forest management and conservation under the Montreal Process is not just about sustainable timber supplies. It includes the conservation of Parks or protected forests as well as other economic activities in the forest to supplement the timber economy. These other economic activities include non timber forest resources, and nature based economic activities around various forms of forest recreation. While these other economic activities will not make up for major short term declines in timber harvest, they can help strapped communities.

The failed and declining corporate industrial forest management system seems to expect an influx of public funds to keep it afloat. Under a system of Local Forest Trusts operating to the Montreal Process concept of multiple economic benefits, some of this expenditure could be allocated for direct employment in local communities in constructing hiking trails and other infrastructure in Parks and  even larger area of wilderness contained within forest landscapes also used for timber production. Switzerland has invested in simple tourist infrastructure in its mountains and natural areas for 150 years and has a very substantial tourist economy. BC has greater and better natural endowments but has not invested in the infrastructure to attract additional tourists. The solutions in the leaked cabinet document would help to drive tourists away.

Local Forest Trusts would conduct their own harvesting and sell logs on an open market. This will encourage a variety of wood products manufacturers offering greater employment per cubic meter of timber. The allocation of most public timber to an oligopoly of forest corporations engaged in commodity lumber and paper pulp manufacture restricted diversity and total employment in wood products. In Burns lake, a wood manufacturing plant making edge glued laminated board and pieces for cabinet manufacture could provide local employment equal to the present commodity sawmill with a fifth of the volume of wood. This approach could tide the community over a decline in timber supply without whacking the forests.

Allowing industrial forest management to harvest timber that is protected for wildlife, visual and environmental protection would be a mistake. However, this approach to stewardship of other values is a social and political accommodation under the existing industrial forest management framework. Industrial forest management was viewed as a hard hammer in the forest, and the only way of providing stewardship of other values has been to reserve areas from harvest to protect other values. While reserves may be necessary in some circumstances, other forest jurisdictions have employed approaches where forest management surrounding a reserve is conducted to provide habitat or protection. Usually there is a full suite of silvicultural systems, considerable ingenuity and trained forest workers involved in the implementation. Under the local forest trust with independent managers, more advanced approached could be implemented.

Under a local forest trust the annual harvest would be determined by the local chief forester and it would be subject by audit by a BC Forest Stewardship Assembly. The BC Forest Stewardship Assembly would audit and support local forest trusts and it would be governed by professional and elected delegates from local forest trusts. The Chief Forester of a Local Forest Trust is better positioned to determine the annual harvest than a single Chief Forester of the Ministry of Forests situated in Victoria. The Chief Forester in Victoria bases his harvest level determinations for large timber supply areas from timber supply analyses. These analyses turn the forest into a numerical abstraction of timber inventory figures. While the analyses can give approximate harvest levels it is limited by lack of specific local and geographic knowledge. Provincial forest inventories have not been sufficiently updated, thorough forest engineering analysis of the limits of economically accessible timber given different market conditions have not been conducted. The harvest levels determined by a Chief Forester in Victoria involve a lot of guess work. A local Chief Forester would have the local knowledge and first hand information and would work with a computer geographic information system at the local scale that could take the harvest down to an actual schedule of specific sites long into the future. Operating with a higher level of local knowledge and finesse at the local scale can enable some more timber to be made available in the short term without negative effects. It would also give some assurance against future major declines, such as we now face as a result of our improvident arrangements for managing public forests.

The timber supply deficit caused by the unnatural mountain pine beetle epidemic is a formidable challenge to many forest dependent communities in the interior of BC. Under a new legal and institutional framework for managing public forests under local forest trusts, a new forest economy based on ingenuity and enterprise can mitigate the effects of a decline in timber supply. Unfortunately the BC Cabinet seems to be stuck on the existing system with solutions similar to the improvident behavior that caused the timber supply problem in the first place.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Volunteering in BC Parks

Over the past four winters, I have volunteered by rebuilding the trails in the local Provincial Park.  I worked to remove projecting rocks and other tripping hazards on about 12 kilometers of trail. At the start of the maintenance, an informal survey of 40 regular hikers found that 37 had experienced a fall causing an injury in the previous year while hiking on the trails. After the trails had been rebuilt, only one regular user out of 40 had an injury in the previous year and that was due to snow and ice. Hikers can look at the park while hiking rather than their feet.

The maintenance work that reduced the rate of injury was intended to move the trails into compliance with the 4 inch by 4 inch rule or specification for the tread or walking surface of the trail. Most Parks jurisdictions try to follow this specification which states that there should be no rocks bigger than 4 inches within the top 4 inches of surface material on the trail tread. The reason for the rule is that finer material wear away around larger stones and they start to project and become a tripping hazard. BC Parks does not have any specification for the surface on tread of most hiking trails.

When the work on the trails in the Park was completed in January 2012, the Parks Official asked me what I would substitute for exercise. I pointed out that my .75 acre vegetable garden cultivated only with hand tools and the 50 tons of horse manure carted in a wheelbarrow from the stables a good distance up the road was probably enough for a start. BC Parks is trying to encourage volunteer stewardship and I could see that he was fishing for another volunteer contribution.

The next provincial park in the vicinity is a much larger one on a unique landscape, acquired in the 1990s. Its trails are a haphazard network of old logging roads and connecting trails that are in a state of disrepair. Since the trail route corridors take detours in the landscape, users have pioneered other tracks. The management plan for the Park completed in the 1990s recognized the need for some planning work on the trail system. There has been no progress since then, presumably due to lack of funds.

I offered to organize a sustainable trails project for the Park. The project would have three stages:

  1. A survey and assessment of the existing trails
  2. Reconnaissance and location of trails required for a sustainable network
  3. Implementation requiring additional volunteers to bring the trails to a sustainable network
The project outline needed a list of survey supplies need to start the project. Excavation in the storage closets around the house unearthed my forest engineering instruments. I was pleased to find my sighting compass and clinometer, but unfortunately the passage of time had caused problems in the liquid filling in both instruments. Neither one could supply the accuracy needed for the survey.

A compass and a clinometer was added to the list of survey supplies. BC Parks did not have the instruments, so new instruments need to be purchased. The Parks official is doing his best to find a few dollars from a tight budget. I have found two volunteers to help with the survey stages. The project remains on hold for want of $275 dollars for necessary survey instruments.

Postscript. Funding and approval for the project came in mid May 2012.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Economic Policies and the BC Forest Sector

Economic policies should encourage sustainable forest management. The Montreal Process, the international agreement on sustainable forest management outlines the following:

"7.3.a Investment and taxation policies and a regulatory environment which recognize the long-term nature of investments and permit the flow of capital in and out of the forest sector in response to market signals, non-market economic valuations, and public policy decisions in order to meet long-term demands for forest products and services;
7.3.b Non-discriminatory trade policies for forest products."

There is enough in the above to keep a whole band of economists or politicians in debate for decades.  
Perhaps the best place to start is to look at the emerging outcomes of forest and economic policies in BC:

  1. BC is vulnerable to export taxes or tariffs on softwood lumber exports to USA owing to the non market sale of public timber
  2. There is a major crunch or decline in timber supply in the interior of BC as salvage of timber from the mountain pine beetle epidemic nears it end. Government and forest industry have blamed the epidemic on climate change but lenient economic policies that encouraged forest industry to harvest species other than pine and fire control led to huge areas of old pine forests that were very susceptible to beetle attack.
  3. The coastal forest industry is suffering in a difficult period of transition to second growth harvest occasioned by rapid depletion of old growth. 
Economic policies external to the forest sector may also have negative effects. The rising value of the Canadian Dollar brought in part by the intention to proceed with rapid exploitation of the Alberta Tar sands will have negative effects on forest product exports.

Economic and forest policies are not producing the desired outcomes for sustainable forest management. The focus of BC's economic and forest policies for the past six or seven decades has been the facilitation of forest corporations efforts to convert trees from public forests into dollars. Lots of dollars were made, but forests and forest dependent communities are now suffering.

Public forests were originally envisioned as a means to encourage free enterprise in wood products manufacture. Rather than have timber companies owning the forest, public timber was supposed to be available on an open market to encourage entrepreneurs and diversification of wood products. British Columbia managed to combine the worst aspects of the public and private sectors in its forest and economic policies. Timber from BC's public forests were allocated to a few forest corporations at administered prices. Competition and diversification were impeded and wood exports became vulnerable to export tariffs. Both corporations and government extracted dollars from the forest. The forests were not subject to business like management. Forest corporations were reluctant to spend on forest management because they did not own the public forests. Government revenues from the forest ended up in general government revenue. Money returned to the forest had to be authorized by government budget and then dispensed through centralized government agencies. This was an uncertain an inefficient way to see to the needs of forest stewardship necessary to ensure sustainable production.

BC's forest and economic policies need a major overhaul. In today's world of neo-conservative ideas the first solution to be proposed will be the privatization of BC's public forests. Private interests have already exploited the best of BC's timber and they will eagerly purchase the debilitated forests for a song. 

Can public forests be managed in a business manner and ensure sustainability? The local forest trust model shows most promise. Local forest trusts would be run at a local scale with an elected board and professional managers on a business basis. Income from the free market sale of timber, non timber and nature based economic enterprises would be used to cover the costs of forest stewardship. Local forest trusts would be accountable to a BC Forest Trust Assembly comprised of elected and professional delegates from local forest trusts. It is a free enterprise arrangement accountable to local people and will serve communities better than politicians in Victoria who have treated the public forests like a pork barrel or overpaid corporate executives equally bent on extracting dollars from the forest.