Thursday, May 24, 2012

BC's forestry problems

Significant decline in timber harvest is expected in some interior areas of BC as salvage of timber from forests affected by the mountain pine beetle epidemic winds down. The BC Government has appointed a Special Committee on Timber Supply with the following terms of reference:

"Terms of Reference

On May 16, 2012, the Legislative Assembly agreed that a Special Committee on Timber Supply be appointed to examine, inquire into and make recommendations with respect to mid-term timber supply for British Columbia resulting from the pine beetle epidemic-related loss of timber supply in the central interior, and to conduct consultations on this issue with the public and local governments, including communities and First Nations, by means the Special Committee considers appropriate, with a final report due August 15, 2012.
The Special Committee shall specifically consider:
  • Recommendations that could increase timber supply, including direction on the potential scope of changes to land use objectives, rate of cut and the conversion of volume based to area based tenures; and
  • Areas requiring change to legislation and/or key implementation tools.
The above considerations should occur with due regard for the following:
  • Fiscal commitment of the province to balance the budget and maintain competitive electricity rates;
  • Maintaining high environmental standards and protection of critical habitat for species and key environmental values;
  • Optimal health of communities and as orderly a transition as possible to post beetle cut levels;
  • Maintaining a competitive forest industry;
  • The existence of First Nations rights and claims of title; and
  • The Softwood Lumber Agreement and other trade agreements.
The Special Committee so appointed shall have all the powers of a Select Standing Committee and is also empowered:
  • To appoint of their numbers, one or more subcommittees and to refer to such subcommittees any of the matters referred to the Committee;
  • To sit during a period in which the House is adjourned, during the recess after prorogation until the next following Session and during any sitting of the House;
  • To adjourn from place to place as may be convenient;
  • To retain Jim Snetsinger and Larry Pedersen as technical advisors, and any other personnel as required to assist the Committee;
The said Special Committee shall report to the House no later than August 15, 2012 and shall deposit the original of its reports with the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly during a period of adjournment and upon resumption of the sittings of the House, or at the next following session, the Chair shall present all reports to the Legislative Assembly. "

Will this committee take an honest look at the systemic problems in BC's arrangements for managing public forests? Is this just another public relations effort to squeeze some more timber out of BC's public forests while at the same time push them farther along the road to enclosure by establishing long term area based tenures. The committee has some people with forestry experience and has previous Chief Foresters as advisors. However, this does not mean that the committee will be able to move beyond the same old thinking that created the problems in the first place.

The above terms of reference already put a facade around some of the problems. The BC forest industry is not competitive. It is really an oligopoly of forest corporations supported by Government timber allocations. This is why BC is vulnerable to discriminatory export taxes under the the Softwood Lumber Agreement. 

BC citizens need to keep a eye on this committee.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Clear cutting forests is civilized

An Anglican Bishop was talking to another man at a social event and said "I was born and Anglican, I have lived as an Anglican and I will die an Anglican". The other man replied "If we were both born Hindus we would be both living and dying as Hindus".   The other man meant no offence but was merely trying to point out that we are all immersed in our background or mindset. The Anglican Bishop beat a hasty retreat.

Agriculture is the underpinning of civilization. Our manipulation of the earth gave us surplus food and time to devote to other things like permanent buildings, cities, power structures and government, art and music. You could expand your horizons by increasing your agricultural base, including adding your land area by conquering and displacing other people through war. Human beings like to be at the center of things and in control.

Where do forests fit into human mindset of civilization? To make fields for growing food, you have to cut down forests in many parts of the world. Clear cutting is as old as agriculture. Agriculture is relatively intense and it is about control and simplification. The field contains a crop of a single species, with efforts made  specific to that species to ensure a crop in one year or season. Agriculture has the geometry of simplification, straight lines, defined boundaries, squares and rectangles. Sane people pursue similar geometric lines in an almost obsessive compulsive attempt to maintain order and control in their gardens. It all considered normal but what of happens to the forest when faced with this mindset. The forest is organic and complex and there are few straight lines in the untidy world of an indigenous forest.

In addition to cutting down forests to make way for fields, we went to the forest to get stuff. The stuff in the forest was once probably more important than it is today. Wood was the main source of fuel before coal and oil. Wood remains a major building material, but it was once one of the leading strategic materials for the conduct of war. Wooden warships needed lots of big pieces of wood. Cannons and explosives were not the first war device to break down massive castle walls. You just needed a good long strong tree stem to form the centerpiece of the counterweight trebuchet, a siege engine that could throw a 300 pound boulder at 120 miles per hour at your neighbor's castle wall.

Humans had at least a couple of thousand years of history in the business of removing or debilitating forests, before we tried to help them with forestry. Civilization does progress after a fashion. In some parts of the world we have managed to achieve better human rights but we have weapons of mass destruction. Modern forestry emerged when Europe started to rehabilitate forests. This was the late 1700's, when the modern era was underway. Humans were armed with agricultural abilities and a new idea that reason and science would give us all the answers. Humans were on a march with greater certainty that we could control everything to our needs.

Modern forestry started with a mindset of agriculture, reason and science and a sense of certainty that we were in control. Agriculture is hugely dependent on the complex workings of minerals, organic matter and micro-organisms in the soil. We are just starting to appreciate that our ignorance of soils is greater than our knowledge. We started to fix forests with agriculture, reason and science.
Early forest management followed the agriculture model, with fields often of single species of trees that were weeded, tended, and clear cut. Trees are plants and will respond to an agricultural regime to some extent. There was some success but some failures. In the late 1800's some European foresters developed and understanding that the simplified agricultural model of single species and clear cutting was inadequate for managing forests. Non clear cutting systems involving a considerable variety of shelter wood and selection silvicultural systems were developed. The underlying idea was that forests were best managed more along the lines of the natural workings of indigenous forests. "Work with nature or you will be defeated." These ideas departed significantly from the idea that humans were in control and could achieve total efficiency.

We are now aware that were are at the end of the modern era. Science and the quest for efficiency in our unquestioned use of the earth's stuff with continued growth is not sustainable. We are entering an new post modern era that is ill defined. We do not change our mindsets easily. The European foresters that developed non clear cutting silvicultural systems were ahead of their time in developing a practical post modern approach. Unfortunately, the practice of forestry is not just a technical matter. It is embedded in society, its ideas, politics, laws and institutions in place to provide for forests.

In a technical and practical sense, forestry was ready and able to move ahead into a post modern era of forest ecosystem management in the 1880s. Progress was hindered by societal and historic forces. America started to take the lead over Europe in the Twentieth Century. American foresters rejected the natural approach that included non clear cutting silvicultural systems. One of their main reasons was that there were more natural forest fires in North America that needed to be controlled.  Also, the other systems seemed to involve considerable fiddling around. American production lines were taking modernism to new heights by supplying automobiles and other appliances. A kinder gentler type of forestry had little place, as America went on a binge through its seemingly abundant and unending forest resources. Forest harvest left a trail of ghost timber towns and progressive forces started to ask for National Forests and Parks to help protect the remaining forests and wild places in America.

Gifford Pinchot, an American forester championed the establishment of the American National Forests. The idea was that the government as a perpetual steward and trustee could do a better job than the timber company. The US National Forests were established out of more distant remnant forests that had not yet fallen to the axe and saw. The largest and most contiguous public forests established on Pinchot's advice were in BC Canada. A BC Royal Commission on its forests in 1909 came out in favor of BC retaining its forests in public ownership for the long term benefit of its citizens and communities. The commission sought Pinchot's advice and it probably was a major influence in the recommendations to retain the forests and establish a BC Forest Service.

The American National Forests and the BC Public Forests were set up to provide a higher type of professional forest management. This objective was never realized and in the late Twentieth Century frictions were developing over clear cutting of forests and turning them over to industrial forestry. Given the predominance of clear cutting and few examples of progressive forest stewardship, the public saw salvation in the establishment of parks and protected areas. The public got more parks especially in BC. Parks and protected areas are a necessary part of sustainable forest management. However in the political view, the creation of more parks that the public wanted in BC, was taken as license for an even harder form of industrial forest management in public forests used for timber production.

 The idea of managing forests more along the lines of indigenous forests also surfaced under a new term of forest ecosystem management. Forest ecosystem management has gained little traction in BC against existing industrial forest management. It hits the prejudice of modernism and it is assumed that it will be less efficient, more costly and will threaten the wood supply. Modern industrial forest management in BC collided with the mountain pine beetle. Modern industrial forest management in BC blames the beetles on climate change and mild winters that were out of its control. The beetles were the beneficiaries of forest management's control of forest fires and desire to take the stuff it wanted out of the forest. Fire fighting saved pine and other species were favored for harvest with the net result of accumulation of huge areas of old pine. Mountain pine beetles like old pine for habitat. Communities in the interior of BC face major declines in timber harvest in the wake of the mountain pine beetle epidemic that has erased $100 Billion in economic activity in the timber economy. Modern industrial forest management is an economic failure in BC.   It is too costly not to try something else.

Civilization has got stuck in ruts often for centuries owing to unwillingness to change the prevailing mindset. Forests will probably fare better when we cease to see ourselves at the center, intent of making use of everything to the maximum to meet our needs. Humans have made major changes in the past when it has become necessary.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

BC Forest Roads: Public to assume all risks

The BC Government is trying to sneak some legislation on forest roads into law. In March 2012, there was the first reading of an amendment to the Occupiers Liability Act to reduce the liability of forest companies and the Government with respect to forest roads. The Occupiers Liability Act requires the owner or operator of any premises to ensure that things are safe for anyone who enters. You get some protection if you enter a grocery store.  When the legislation comes into law, a member of the public, an owner of the public forest who goes on a forest or resource road will be in terms of the law: " a person who enters onto or otherwise uses a resource road is deemed to have willingly assumed all risks, " 

This has not been reported by the press because they assume that the public is not much interested in their public forests. It is the job of government to see to the interests of the public. The duty probably should be greater in the case of something that the public owns. 
You, or I as owners can fall into a hole in a forest road as far as the Government cares. 

The attitude of the BC Government shows lack of regard for the public owners and a willingness to provide for the interests of forest companies. It shields government from its duty of forest stewardship. A further step in the gradual stealth privatization of BC's public forests.

 What will the new legislation mean in practice for public users of forest and resource roads on public lands and forests?  On forest roads that are actively being used by forest companies, road safety standards will remain similar to present because forest companies will still be required to see to the safety of their employees and contractors.

What is this legislation really about? This legislation reduces the liability of the managers of BC's public forests, the BC Government and Forest companies, for poor forest stewardship. If you want to assess the quality of forest stewardship and do not know anything about trees or forests, you can get a good idea from the tracks or roads the human managers leave behind. Folk that do not know much about forests will often see clear cutting as the greatest potential environmental impact in the forest. Clear cutting can be accomplished with little impact if planned  and done correctly. However road location, construction and subsequent maintenance has much more potential for lasting environmental impact. Even a trail in a forest or park can become a problem.  Roads remove protective vegetation, disturb the soil or nutrient capital and alter the drainage. If roads are not well located, constructed or maintained they can cause landslides, erosion with downstream effects or fish and water supply. 

There is a structural problem that leads to poor stewardship of forest roads in BC. Our legal and institutional framework for the management of public forests is not built to provide forest stewardship, but rather to provide private rights to public timber. Responsibility of forest companies for forest stewardship covers harvesting and regeneration. This means that forest companies will be doing these activities in the forest on about 10 % to 20 % of the total area at any time. Roads that remain after the harvest and regeneration cycle get little or no maintenance. The location and planning of most forest roads is done prior to harvest, but harvest plans are usually for piecemeal parts of the forest for period of 5 years.  Forest roads are often located with little regard to long term access of the whole forest and this can result in excess roads, steep gradients that can increase erosion. 

When forest companies finish the harvest regeneration cycle, forest roads other than main arterial are often abandoned to lack of care. This means deterioration, erosion and reduced safety. Government bureaucrats assigned these roads to a euphemistic category of " Non Status Roads". Rather than solve the problem with a much needed new framework for stewardship of public forests that would bring continuous road stewardship, government has tried to mitigate the impact of abandoned forest roads. In the Forest practices Code era of the 1990's, road deactivation measures were introduced.  While these can help to reduce deterioration and erosion, they may not remain effective in a situation of complete abandonment. 

There tens of thousands kilometers of abandoned forest and resource roads in our public forests. They deteriorate and cause environmental impact. They become less safe for use as they deteriorate. This creates a liability problem for the Government and forest companies.  The solution is to legislate immunity.

This is like receiving that our forest managers that says:

Dear owner,

Our management of your forest and forest roads is poor. If you wish to visit your forests you do so at your own risk.

Yours truly,
Government and Forest Corporations.

It is time that the public responded as a sensible and reasonable owner and gave the managers the necessary reply:

You are fired!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Clear cutting: What does the eye see?

Clear cutting has been a flash point in British Columbia. Environmental groups, urban dwellers react negatively to clear cuts in the forest landscape. There has been friction and noise about clear cutting for about 40 years. Every time the issue surfaces,its gets played out the same way, something like a bad commercial on the TV screen:

Logging is a mainstay of the BC economy. (We need to do it like this or we will be in the poorhouse) This then gets bolstered by scientific and professional advice that clear cutting is an acceptable silvicultural system. Special interest groups, greenies, and urban dudes should get educated and accept these facts.

The interior of BC is about to get hit with a major decline in timber supply in the aftermath of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. It will mean decline in employment.  One of the solutions that has been floated is a relaxation of environmental standards to free up timber in the short term. This is not really a solution but a postponement of the problem. Will the resistors, the greenies and the urban dudes be told to stand down and witness the last whack at our public forests?

If we want to solve the problem, we need to know what the problem is. Technical forestry arguments say that clear cutting is not a problem. The visual expression of clear cutting on the landscape seems to be the spark that gives many the impression that all is not well with forest management.

The government, forest corporations, scientists, forestry professionals, and columnists in the press have all tried to diminish the impressions of the greenies and the urban dudes. Maybe the greenies and the urban dudes did not have an erroneous impression because all is not well with forest management in BC. The outcome has matched the expectations of the greenies and the urban dudes rather than the government, forest industry or the experts.

Forest management on the coast of BC during the last half or the 20th century was one great advancing clear cut that followed the best timber on the easiest terrain on the lowlands, then up the valley bottoms to the mountain tops. Vancouver Island got this treatment from south to north and east to west. The coastal forest sector is now in a very difficult transition.

In the interior of BC, clear cutting was more dispersed in forest landscapes. The motivation was the same as on the coast, but the best stands of timber were more dispersed. Some of the forest ecosystems in the interior of BC are fire dominated. Sometimes, the better stands of timber were found on sites that were more sheltered from fire owing to topography, aspect or moisture. Lodge pole pine was the species that grew on sites where fires returned frequently. In these landscapes, industrial forest management involved forest corporations logging the best timber and government fire fighting efforts often saving Lodge pole pine in areas where fires returned frequently. Other species were more profitable than pine so insufficient pine was harvested. Huge areas of pine got old as other areas were being clear cut. Pine becomes susceptible to attack by mountain pine beetle at 80 years old so the accumulation of huge areas of old pine set the stage for a super epidemic. BC  lost $100 Billion in timber by clear cutting in the wrong places. What about all the public funds spent over decades to build a huge habitat area of old Lodge pole pine for mountain pine beetle?

What was the motivator for the problems on the coast and interior. Simply it was clear cut the best timber. BC's legal and institutional arrangements for management of its public forest are really arrangements to allocate public timber mainly to forest corporations and leniently enable them to harvest the best timber by the least cost means to return the most money to corporations and the government. That means clear cutting. When the greenies and the urban dudes saw something wrong in the clearcut they were merely getting a visual impression on the landscape of a poor arrangements for managing public forests.

The solution is to revamp the legal and institutional framework for managing public forests. Future prosperity of forest dependent community requires a new system where forest stewardship takes priority.  We will not fix the problem with more of the same. We cannot clear cut our way out of the problem. See labels: Local Forest Trusts and  Forest Trust Assembly