Monday, July 9, 2012

Political ecology and BC's Public Forests

The management of BC's public forests has been a hundred year exercise in human ecology or perhaps political ecology. Interaction between human society and the forest since the arrival of Europeans has been political. The BC Legislature has a special committee on timber supply to examine the problem of declining harvests in the wake of a mountain pine beetle epidemic. Human ecology is not just about human nature, social, political and economic systems imposing their will on the forest. The special committee on timber supply exists because the forest has reacted to the burdens of human use or misuse.

We like to explain the reaction of the forest in terms of climate change. The super-sized, larger than natural, outbreak of mountain pine beetle is blamed on mild winters. We like this simple but incomplete explanation. Another important factor in the super epidemic was the build up of huge areas of old Lodge Pole Pine that are susceptible to beetle attack. The build up of old  pine was caused by forest management. Forest fires were suppressed and sufficient pine was not harvested soon enough, because other species were more profitable. Forest Management in BC has bumped up against an old forestry dictum "Work with nature or you will be defeated". The forest sector is being constrained by nature and not, as they would have us believe, by measures to protect the environment and other forest values. Improvidence has constrained the timber supply.

The workings of nature in a forest are very complex and remain beyond our present level of scientific understanding. Forests can be subject to some rather destructive natural disturbances, but there is also evidence that they operate at least to some extent as an ecological common wealth. Tree roots are usually in a sharing relationship with various micro organisms and fungi in the soil that helps all parties in the forest to survive over the long term. Humans on the other hand are propelled by forces that seek to protect individual or or group interests. Power is closely associated with these forces.  Humans can also moderate their individual or group self interests. Our political, legal, religious and other institutions seek to provide some balance but progress can be interspersed by regression or calcification. Inequity leads to conflict. Forests need some protection from humans. Most jurisdictions have some legal and institutional framework to moderate human exploitation of forests. In most jurisdictions this will mean some regulation on forest owners.

Foresters in BC often complain about political interference in forest management. It is seen as a bad influence that is best ignored, rather than understood. The reality is that in BC forestry is totally political. BC made the decision to retain most of its forests in public ownership. The BC Government is the trustee and the management of forests is political. Forest management in BC has been a great experiment in political ecology. One hundred years ago the institution of public forests was intended to provide independent professional management by a BC Forest Service. The intent was to sustain communities and a healthy forest industry in the long term. It was seen as a better alternative than private ownership by timber companies that could exploit the forest. Control by a few timber companies could restrict the availability of timber and restrict entrepreneurial activity in the development of a diversified wood products industry.

The advocates for public forests of 100 years ago reminded BC Legislators that Public Forests would only work if they ensured the gradual and progressive development of a wise system of forest stewardship. Unfortunately, BC Legislators over the last 100 years have excelled in aiding the development of an unwise system of stewardship that has undermined the original intent of public forests and led to the present sustainability crisis.

Management of public forests in BC revolves around rights to harvest timber that are held for the most part by forest industry corporations. (For more information: )
 The tenure system gives rights to loggers. This is hardly a basis for forest stewardship for the 21st century. Increasing forest management responsibilities have been transferred to timber rights holders.  After the environmental awakening that commenced about 1970, the system has been retrofitted with land use planning and environmental protection measures. The original intention of independent professional forest management has been replaced by the concept of professional reliance in Registered Professional Foresters. However, foresters have to work within a legal and institutional framework that is based on legal rights for loggers. Management of BC's public forests operates within this box. The system is a political arrangement. The rights to harvest public timber  has been a currency for politicians in BC. Only one Minister of Forests went to jail for putting some of the cash into his own pocket. Awarding of timber harvesting rights to forest companies after WWII was a political winner because it brought prosperity as the best of the forest started to be utilized. Politicians scored points with the public and the forest companies as timber wealth started to flow. The forest piggy bank is getting rather low so we may see some new political maneuvers.

A tenure system in public forests based on rights to harvest timber is not a foundation for sustainable forest management. Rather, it is an arrangement destined to exploit the wealth of the forest in the short term. Over the long term, it gives a forest with reduced economic opportunities and forest health problems. This is our present predicament. The only real solution to the timber supply problem is wise arrangements for forest management. This means major overhaul of the present laws, institutions for managing BC's public forests.

A wise system should not be based on rights to harvest, but rather on stewardship responsibilities. Local forest trusts with an elected board and local professional managers is a wise area based option. The trusts would operate under trust documents based on the Montreal Process, the international standard for sustainable forest management. The forests would be managed for timber, non timber and nature based economic activity. The trusts would operate as forest businesses with the transaction with timber corporations being cash for timber offered in an open market. A BC Forest Trust Assembly governed by elected and professional delegates from local forest trusts would audit, support and act as a court of appeal.

BC legislators of the past 100 years have not delivered on a wise system of sustainable forest stewardship. New arrangements for sustainable forest stewardship are a prerequisite for future timber supplies. Will the present Special Committee on Timber Supply make strong recommendations for new arrangements for stewardship of public forests?

Major change usually comes after it is realized that the old bad ways need to be changed. Unfortunately, the transcripts of the hearings of the special committee on timber supply indicate that the penny has not quite dropped. The mountain pine beetle epidemic is being excused on climate change that is outside of our control. Forest management deficiencies that led to the forests in the interior of BC becoming a huge mountain pine beetle habitat of old pine trees has not been acknowledged. Even foresters, biologists and ecologists who have highlighted stewardship problems have not explicitly linked them to the deficiencies in the present legal and institutional infrastructure. It is the box that every one thinks within. Rights to harvest timber as a stewardship arrangement for public forests is a very bad mouthful that everyone is trying to swallow. It is not positive to say it tastes good while you are choking.

If BC Legislators had been good trustees of the public forest over the past 100 years we would not have the present system. The existing system only appears to cater to the public interest. It really caters to the insiders in the system, the corporations holding timber harvesting rights. BC Public Forests have been used support a government created oligopoly of forest corporations that is subject to discriminatory export taxes and tariffs. The present legal and institutional arrangements act in the interests of the forest corporations holding timber rights.

BC has legislation that makes the like of store owners and others with premises that the public may enter liable for unsafe conditions. After forest corporations exercise their rights to harvest public timber and regenerate piecemeal developments in the forests, roads are left without maintenance and deteriorate to the detriment of the environment and any one who wishes to travel on the road. BC legislators just passed legislation to limit the liability of forest companies for these unsafe roads. The public has to go into their own forest at their own risk.

The Public Forest pork barrel is getting low so the old spin of prosperity for forest companies, forest communities and forest workers will no longer work. Voters in forest dependent communities are out numbered by those in BC's major urban centers. Although the recommendations of the present legislative committee will have great significance for the future of BC's forest, environment and communities, it has hardly made into the news media in BC. Impacted voters in forest dependent communities can probably be persuaded on some measures that are not in their long term interests by some short term economic fear tactic.

The timber supply problems in BC's public forest have been caused by legislators that have given legal and institutional leniency to forest corporations. We should hope that the present legislators will be gifted with the wisdom to make changes but their recommendations expected later this summer may try to solve the problem with more leniency for forest corporations. This may take the form of longer term area based tenures that will move the public forests well along the road to total enclosure into the private interest. The committee may call for the removal of "constraints" to timber harvest. "Constraints" is a term used for measures to protect the environment and other forest values. It shows the thinking within the forest sector. Actually the greatest constraint to timber harvest in the interior of BC was forest management activity that produced huge areas of mountain pine beetle habitat. We need to start to look at this major constraint to timber supply that has its roots in a politically lenient tenure system for corporate timber rights holders.

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