Thursday, June 28, 2012

Solving BC's Timber Sustainability Crisis


Old large stump from bygone harvest looks down on present offerings


The BC Legislative Special Committee on Timber Supply is trying to seek solutions to impending declines in timber supply. Forest dependent communities around BC will suffer. Given that BC is suffering sustainability problems, it would seem logical to examine the wisdom of our arrangements for sustainable forest management.

Sustainable forest management is the central issue but the issue is being obscured in public relations gloss and outright deluded thinking. Most forest companies operating in public forests have had their operations certified under one of several sustainable forest management certification schemes. Most of these certifications provide a stamp to improve the marketability of wood products.  None of these certification schemes examines or questions the quality of the legal and institutional arrangements that a jurisdiction makes for sustainable forest management. Some major problems have slipped under their radar.

But what about the mountain pine beetle epidemic? The climate change tune that has been played at high volume on the amplifier is perhaps the greatest delusion. Yes, mountain pine beetles survive better in mild winters, but they have survived in BC for a long time because BC's proximity to the Pacific Ocean can moderate winter temperatures. Things are seldom simple in forest management and more than one factor is usually involved. A major factor is that Lodge Pole Pine becomes susceptible to attack by mountain pine beetle at about 80 years old. BC's system of forest management encouraged huge areas of Lodge Pole Pine to become old and ripe for a super epidemic. The super epidemic has wasted about $100 Billion worth of public resources. BC residents usually get up in arms about even minor waste of public funds or resources. We get excited about wasting a drop in the bucket but the public relations people have managed to fly this really big bucket under the radar.

What is the problem with BC's existing legal and institutional arrangements for forest management?  They are not really arrangements for forest stewardship but arrangements or rights to harvest public timber.  They are conceived as a Public Timber Take Out.  Yes, you have to reforest and meet a considerable number of requirements before you can harvest, but building forest stewardship arrangements around rights to harvest means you are going to get exploitation perhaps obscured by a facade of extras. The extras may give you enough brownie points to get some sustainable forest management stamp on your timber. The certification will not do much good if you do not have enough timber to stamp.

BC's Timber Take Out was operated with leniency. The best most profitable timber went out the door first. This means that forest operations will become less profitable when the best is gone. This was the problem in the coastal forest industry. In the interior of BC, less desirable Lodge Pole Pine was left to get old and susceptible to mountain pine beetle. Government aided in the aging process by suppressing fires that would have naturally recycled old pine stands.

The Special Committee on Timber Supply seems to be in the position of "Old Mother Hubbard" with bare shelves and little room for maneuver. Will it try to solve the problem by recommending further leniency that may damage the forest environment, and just postpone the day of reckoning?
Timber is a major driver in the BC economy. We see forests as timber and therefore dollars. It is not just about timber supply at the BC Timber Take Out. The committee will do greatest service to affected communities if it considers the "maintenance and enhancement of long term multiple socio- economic benefits of the forest." This is Criterion 6 of the Montreal Process, the international agreement and comprehensive standard on sustainable forest management. Work through it and look for opportunities, solutions  and effective recommendations:

Value and volume of wood and wood products production, including value added through downstream processing.
Value come first but the committee is focused on volume of wood for commodity wood products manufacturers favored by BC's Timber Take Out. Increasing value could save many jobs or even increase jobs in affected communities. The allocation of most of BC's public timber to commodity wood processors in a non market system of administrative prices restricts the availability of timber to value added manufacturers and acts against diversification.  In addition, the non market system makes BC's wood products vulnerable to discriminatory export tariffs and taxes and removes value.  Local forests should be managed as forest businesses selling wood on an open market. This will create conditions that will foster increased value in the long term while enabling existing manufacturers to purchase timber.

 Value and quantities of production of non-wood forest products
Forest companies that presently share forest management with Government and do most of the operational planning and activities are only concerned with these as a constraint or a nuisance. Yes, timber is likely to remain the largest economic ticket item, but these offer additional economic activity for pressed forest dependent communities. Active management in conjunction with timber planning would be most effective if handled by an independent local forest manager charged with the management of the full natural capital of the forest landscape.

Recreation and Tourism, the nature based non consumptive forest economy
This is the BC's greatest non-timber forest economic opportunity. The area of forest that can be devoted to this economic opportunity is greater than the area of forest in BC that can be harvested. We need to stop thinking about protected areas or parks and the areas in working forest landscapes that cannot be harvested as some sort of economic impediment. Local forest management under trust arrangements  requiring planning and management could realize the full economic potential of the natural capital in forest landscapes. Investment is required to develop these opportunities. Small investments in local hiking trails and recreational facilities are more likely to preserve the natural capital while generating income. Switzerland has generated a huge nature based economy with much less natural capital in forests and mountains than BC.

Investment in the Forest Sector
BC has employed leniency at the Public Timber Take Out to encourage investment. It worked initially to get commodity wood processing plants built after WWII. After the initial exploitation of the best timber, you come to the less profitable timber and ongoing investment is less attractive. In exchange for rights to harvest, government has relied on forest company expenditure to re-forest harvested areas. Unfortunately, the Government had no such contractual arrangements with mountain pine beetles and re-foresting areas killed by the beetles is a problem. Revenue from public forests goes into general BC Government Revenue where other demands remove funds that should have been returned for necessary forest maintenance. A devolved local forest trust operating as a business would return income directly to forest stewardship and be more inclined to manage the local forest for balanced long term profitability compared to boom and bust under the present arrangements.

The Montreal Process outlines other items that would help to improve economic sustainability in forest dependent communities that will be affected by declining timber harvests. Few if any of the potential opportunities can be realized if BC persists in its existing Public Timber Take Out arrangements for forest management. In 1909, a BC Royal Commission on forests reminded legislators that their main responsibility was to ensure wise arrangements for forest management in order to produce the outcome of sustainable forest communities and a healthy forest sector. BC Legislators failed in the 20th Century, and hopefully this present committee will have the sense to replace the present unwise arrangements with a new, wise arrangements.

Under Canada's constitution, BC will always retain authority over its public lands and forests. However, legislators should consider delegating and devolving some of the responsibility for forest policy and management. Some new institutions are needed. A BC Forest Trust Assembly could act as the main central forest policy an support agency. It would be directed by elected and professional delegates from local forest trusts. The local forest trust would be the building block of new arrangements. The local forest trust would involve a relatively large area of local forest landscape that is large enough to be a self supporting forest business enterprise. It would have board elected on a ward system from communities and rural areas in the vicinity and professional staff. The local forest would be managed under trust agreements that requires sustainable management of the full natural capital of the local forest landscape. Timber would be sold on an open market and revenue from sales would cover the expenses of forest stewardship. It would be audited and supported by the BC forest trust assembly.

A devolved system with Local Forest Trusts and a BC Forest Trust Assembly would give BC residents independent, accountable democratic management of their public forests. It is a business, free enterprise model that will encourage diversity in wood products manufacture, expand the non timber and nature based forest economy, cover forest stewardship expenses while reducing the vulnerability of BC wood products to discriminatory export tariffs and taxes. The new trust institutions will ensure that public forest is not subject into enclosure by private interests.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Timber Supply and Social Licence

The Special Committee on Timber Supply is now touring the Province getting deluged with detail, often from foresters. Our existing arrangements for sustaining timber supplies have failed. No one seems to question the validity of the arrangements that have been made to manage our public forests.

Most of BC's forests are in public ownership because, back one hundred years ago, we thought that timber interests would use forests for short term gain and cause long term pain. Also, we thought that control of forests by timber interests would restrict access to timber and limit free enterprise and the diversity of wood manufacture. Now, one hundred years later we have ended up with all the problems we hoped to avoid.

To prevent these problems BC's public forests were intended to be managed by an independent professional forest service. Two World Wars and a depression in the first half of last century made the populace eager for economic development. In this environment, we forged some aberrant arrangements for managing our public forests. Forest corporations were allocated public timber if they would construct saw mills and pulp mills. Lenient arrangements of non market administrative prices and the right to choose the areas to be harvested resulted in the rapid removal of the best timber. Other secondary wood manufacturers had limited access to public timber and BC's wood products manufacture did not diversify much beyond commodity products.

These arrangements for forest management were failing by 1970, as a global environmental awakening started to emerge. Rather than make necessary changes, our forest management arrangements were retrofitted with a new facade. Environmental values of the forest would be considered and accommodated. Forest corporations and the Ministry of Forests often refer to these as "constraints". This parlance seemed to help people avoid the obvious question of what exactly was being constrained. Forest companies would no longer be able to log everything in front of them if there were fish or wildlife values or aesthetic considerations etc. Now that the failed system is in a period of long term pain, eyes are turning to some of the areas left un-harvested for various environmental reasons.

The attempt to manufacture social licence for a lenient system of timber extraction probably went farther than originally intended. A good section of the public simply did not trust the system of forest management and wanted some forests to be saved from the system and placed in Parks. Actually parks or protected forests are an important part of sustainable forest management, but in BC they are viewed as a necessary something "other" given the system of forest management. In the case of constrained management areas within timber producing forests, such as wildlife habitat areas there is a public expectation that these will not be harvested. The Ministry of Forests and forest companies have done little to demonstrate abilities to do anything other than clear cutting. Innovative approaches such as the application of alternative non clear cutting silvicultural systems,  have not been demonstrated to the public.

The sharing of management of public forests between the Ministry of Forests and forest companies led to a less than practical approach to the handling of other forest values. In the shared system of management, the Ministry of Forests has more the role of a regulator that purports to look after the public interest. The Ministry of Forests has carried out higher level land use planning exercises with public involvement that has helped to identify areas with other forest values in timber producing forests. While these exercises may delineate areas that cannot be harvested, they often develop general objectives for the other values. Forest companies operate on short term plans of five years or less for piecemeal parts of the forest they choose to harvest and regenerate. A single independent manager of a local forest would in contrast, probably develop a long term operational plan that would sustain the other forest values in the long term.

The existing management of other forest values is not too effective, although you may find some innovative practices by some forest resource professionals. Much of this planning has simply been tokenism. Recent legislation to exempt forest companies from liability for forest roads that are left without maintenance after piecemeal development, demonstrates that there is little true regard for the public interest.

The failure of the existing arrangements for managing BC's public forests seems to be the elephant in the room at the hearings of the special committee on timber supply. The climate change tune is frequently played to help avoid the reality. The existing system failed due to excessive leniency. Will the committee attempt to ameliorate the present problem with more leniency? A chain saw may be coming to a wildlife habitat area near you.

We need a new social licence for managing BC's public forests in the 21st Century. It should take the form of elected local boards of local forest trusts with independent forest managers charged with managing and sustaining all the local forest capital. Local forest Trusts would sell timber on a open market and would be audited by a BC Forest Trust Assembly. The Forest trust Assembly would be directed by elected board and professional forest management delegates from local forest trusts. The existing drivers of our forest management system, BC politicians and Forest Corporations should have their licence revoked for reckless driving.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Timber Supply, Operability and opportunity

Timber Frame Construction

The BC Legislature Committee on timber supply is seeking solutions for expected declines in timber supply in the aftermath of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. There are approximately 55 million hectares of timber in BC of which only some 22 million hectares can be harvested. Some of the 30+ million hectares that cannot be harvested is in Parks, wildlife reserves or otherwise protected for environmental reasons. Some of the area is not physically accessible because it isolated by cliffs and canyons in mountainous terrain. Most of this 30+ million hectares will remain in natural condition as wilderness. It is about twice the size of BC's designated Park System and is the largest wilderness area in BC.

The Ministry of Forests has drawn a line around the forest that can be harvested to arrive at the 22 million hectares. The line is correct if it runs along a Park boundary or excludes timber land that is physically inaccessible. A line is not correct if the boundary involves economic operability. Some timber is too costly to harvest. Economic operability can change with economic conditions. If you can get a good price for wood products the operability line will move to include a greater area. Increasing cost of fuel could decrease the area that can be harvested.

Improved operability could add several million hectares of timber to the area that can be harvested and it represents the best potential opportunity to add some timber to support forest dependent communities. Economic operability of local forests has not been adequately assessed. A more technically detailed method is required. Rather than just placing a line on a map as a rough judgement of operability, the entire accessible forest is mapped by a forest engineer and divided into areas suited to different types of harvesting equipment. Ground based harvesting equipment is less costly than cable harvesting. Other major costs in the equation are forest road and bridge costs and the cost of transporting logs to the mill. The map of harvesting types can be overlaid on the forest inventory map in a geographic information system (GIS) to give the timber volume and species. If the value of the timber exceeds the costs of delivering the timber to the mill, then the area can be harvested.

An adequate forest engineering assessment of operability done by experienced local foresters would probably reveal additional operable area even in present conditions. GIS Software to calculate the limits of operability in changing market and economic conditions was developed 20 years ago. The Ministry of Forests had the software but lacked the forest engineering experience to do an effective job of determining the timber harvesting land base. This type of task is best done by local foresters with forest engineering experience and a knowledge of local terrain, soil, rock and timber. The Local Forest Trust could do a much better job than a centralized bureaucracy.

A major change in the legal and institutional framework for managing public forests could change conditions and lead to major additions to the timber harvesting land base. Our existing system seems to have been designed by a Flat Earth Society. It provides timber to an oligopoly of commodity wood products manufacturers and has restricted timber flow to value added secondary manufacturers. Low value commodity wood product manufacturers are going to be most competitive on flat terrain where low road and harvesting costs are in their favor. Most of  BC is not flat. In addition to restricting diversity in woods products manufacture, the system is vulnerable to export tariffs that can take dollars away and reduce operability. Stewardship arrangements in the forests allow capital assets such as roads necessary to maintain operability to become environmental and safety liabilities.

A move from the present centralized Government and corporate oligopoly management of public forests to a devolved free enterprise model involving Local Forest Trusts, a BC Forest Trust Assembly would give BC a competitive forest products industry with greater diversity in forest products and value. This would give forest dependent communities more wood manufacturing jobs and expand the area of forest that can be harvested. Good quality wood and large sized timbers can be grown in BC. (See Photo) Do we have to reduce it all to two by four inch material to hold up gypsum board?

The idea of using wood as bio-energy is being seen as a potential opportunity. It is efficient to use bark, and other wood waste that you have already transported to the mill as a source of energy. However, hauling logs and dead wood from the forest for energy use will have limited operability given the relatively low value of the delivered timber.

The Special Committee on Timber Supply is having public hearings in some forest dependent communities. See http://www.leg.bc.ca/timbercommittee/public-hearings.asp for dates and times.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Special Committee on Timber Supply

When you can't see the forest for the trees!

The BC Legislative Committee on timber supply has started to take advice. The committee has two previous Chief Foresters as advisors and has started to hear other foresters and resource professionals. The committee has already faced a snowstorm of detailed information from inside the box. Gaining a good perspective and reaching meaningful recommendations is going to be a daunting task for the committee members. Confusion and lack of perspective is worse than a hidden agenda.

BC's industrial forest management box is organised around a division of responsibilities within the Ministry of Forests and in forest corporations. It is set up like an assembly line in a system that is sometimes called "Fordism" like the automobile manufacturer. Foresters and other resource professionals occupy specialized roles in the system. The Chief Forester of the Ministry of Forests has the specialized role of setting the annual allowable harvest based on abstracted inventory and other data for large areas of forest. The Ministry has other specialists with some role in its regulatory responsibilities. Forest corporations that do the harvesting and tree planting have specialists in forest engineering for harvesting and silviculturalists for regeneration.  Someone from the outside attempting to gain a handle on forest management in BC will get a blizzard of information from each type of specialist.

Forest management is a web of complex interconnections. Biological and physical interactions in the forest are complex and have to the assessed with a sort of fuzzy logic that weighs several factors. Water supplies, fisheries and wildlife can be affected by forest management. Recreational opportunities and the aesthetics of the forest environment are important. Economic activity generated by the forest is a mainstay of many communities in BC and trade in forest products is even a matter for international trade agreements.

The Fulton Commission on BC Forests in 1909 gave BC Legislators good advice that holds up even in the 21st Century. It advised legislators that their primary role was to ensure that BC forests had a wise system of forest management. This would provide the basis for a sound forest economy and stable communities. The present committee has been formed because this intended outcome has not been achieved. Given the present outcome it should be evident to the committee that BC's arrangements for forest management are far from wise. The criteria of the Montreal Process provide a good framework for understanding and examining forest management (http://www.rinya.maff.go.jp/mpci/criteria_e.html)
The system of forest management is covered under Criterion 7: Legal, Institutional and Economic framework for conservation and sustainable forest management.

The Special Committee on Timber Supply has been created to solve a problem. If you wish to solve a problem you first have to identify the problem. That sounds very simple, but we often try to solve the symptoms rather than the underlying root problem. Parts of the interior of BC face major declines in timber harvest in the aftermath of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Many communities will be affected. The symptomatic solution is to find some more wood to harvest. There are some opportunities to achieve interim supplies of timber that will be addressed in later blogs. The Committee needs to look at the origins of the present sustainability crisis in timber supply to identify the root problem.

Yes, we are faced with a sustainability crisis in timber supply. We try to tell ourselves that the forests of BC are under sustainable forest management.  Many forest operations are certified by forest management certification schemes. These are legalistic brownie point schemes that give you a label to help sell your forest products. We are sort of getting paid not to understand that the present serious decline in timber supply is not a real sustainability crisis. The committee will hear from insiders that BC's industrial forest management is working nicely. However, sustainability problems are the reality.

Half a century ago, a group of students entering a European Forestry School were taken by a professor to a local park that had forest trees from around the world. The professor would identify trees and give some forest management information about them. "Lodge Pole Pine from British Columbia, a good tree that grows straighter with smaller branches than our native pines. If you want to be a good forest manager do not let this tree grow old because it is short lived and subject to problems if it gets old."  This reflected the place of Lodge Pole Pine in its home ecosystems in BC. It grows in forest fire dominated ecosystems. If it is not recycled by fire after a life of about 80 years it becomes susceptible to attack from mountain pine beetle. From the beetles point of view, Lodge Pole Pine becomes good habitat after it is 80 years old.

In BC's assembly line system of industrial forest management, there is considerable disconnect between the regulatory functions of the Ministry of Forests and the operational harvesting and replanting activities of forest industries. It is not really a system of forest management but a lenient system to dispense public timber to corporate timber interests. It is a non market, non free enterprise system that supports a timber oligopoly that has become subject to discriminatory tariffs on forest products as well as quite a few other problems. This is Canada not Russia!  It is time to get rid of the old clunker and get a new one!

There are approximately 55 million hectares of public timber in BC of which approximately 22 million hectares is suitable or economic for harvest. The available supplies of timber are on a gradient of decreasing profitability. The easier terrain, with the best timber, often closer and less costly to transport contrasts with less valuable less accessible timber further up the mountain and farther away. Within the lenient system of timber provision, companies availed themselves of the most profitable timber and worked themselves into a future of difficulty. Unfortunately that future is now.

In the case of Lodge Pole Pine, the lenient system of timber supply and disconnect between the Ministry of Forests and forest company activities caused a disaster in forest management. The Ministry of Forests retained an operational role in fire suppression and did an excellent job with improving technology in fighting fires in fire dominated ecosystems in the interior of BC. The main species saved to live to old age was Lodge Pole Pine. Meanwhile, forest companies were after species other than Lodge Pole Pine because they were more profitable. The result was a huge area of aging Lodge Pole Pine in interior of BC. This was a mountain pine beetle habitat enhancement project on a grand scale. This was the main factor in an inevitable super epidemic of mountain pine beetle. Some foresters were talking about the inevitability of a super epidemic thirty years ago.

Yes, mountain pine beetles survive better in mild winters, but we cannot blame the mountain pine beetle epidemic on this factor alone. The attempt to portray the super epidemic as some Black Swan event caused by climate change alone is simply not reality. It was a forest management screw-up that prepared $100 Billion worth of timber for beetle fodder. It is a bit hard to admit to this reality. It is the largest waste of public resources in the history of BC. It is the consequence of a foolish system for managing public forests. Really it is not a system for managing public forests but rather a lenient system of dispensing public timber for private gain. The system is a demonstrated failure and we need a new system. Band aid solutions will not suffice. (The stewardship responsibilities of forest companies for harvest and regeneration provide stewardship for part of the public forest for a relatively short period of time. Roads are left without maintenance behind these roaming operations. The roads can become environmental and safety hazards. The Legislative Assembly just dealt with this problem by reducing the liability of forest companies to public users of forest roads. Hardly a sustainable or wise solution. Our legislators need to do better.)

 BC needs a new legal, institutional and economic framework for conservation and sustainable forest management for the 21st century. In the next few blogs we will look at opportunities to support the forest based economies of dependent communities in the near and mid term. Most of these opportunities will require re-engineering of the legal and institutional framework to be realized.

Now, back to some typical forestry advice. Wow, look at those trees in the photo. Look at the leaders or last years growth in height. More than a meter in one year. Phenomenal growth and what does that say about the forest. Actually, it is not a forest but a 60 wide buffer intended to reduce noise from an adjacent road.