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.

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