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.

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