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.

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