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 (
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.

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