Monday, August 20, 2012

MLAs aren't facing the truth: B.C. forests are tapped out

AUGUST 20, 2012 8:34

Since May, when a special committee of the legislature was appointed to address a looming "timber supply" crisis, questions have arisen about what the committee would say about one community in particular.
That community is Burns Lake, where an explosion and fire in January levelled the local sawmill - the village's major employer - killing two workers and put-ting another 250 out of work.
Well, the wait is over, and if the unanimous recommendations of the committee's Liberal and NDP MLAs are an indication, our forests and many rural communities are headed for even harder times than previously thought.
Here's why. Rather than focusing on the core issue (how many trees are left, and what the future holds for our forests) committee members allowed themselves to be swayed by dramatic yet unrelated events.
What happened in Burns Lake naturally triggered outpourings of concern. But let's be clear: the loss of the mill has nothing to do with a looming timber supply crisis. Rather, it underscores the severity of the problems ahead for numerous communities, Burns Lake included.
We are on the cusp of a monumental shift in our Interior forests. After a decade-plus attack by mountain pine beetles and other pests, a spate of intense wildfires and years of unsustainable logging, our forests are largely depleted of commercially desirable trees.
To their credit, members of the special committee on timber supply acknowledge this. They conclude that the projected drop in logging rates places eight sawmills in danger. This is probably an underestimate. Either way, when mill capacity outstrips what our forests can provide, mills must close.
Yet having acknowledged that existing sawmills have an appetite for wood that exceeds what our forests can provide, committee members turned around and suggested we should build another mill first and find the timber later.
To entice the owner of the destroyed Burns Lake mill to rebuild, the commit-tee chose to go down the same tired road that gave rise to the timber supply crisis: push the boundaries of what can be harvested to the extreme. This was essentially the approach applied in the East Coast cod fishery, and we all know how that worked out.
The committee astonishingly suggested that there are actually twice as many trees to log in the forests around Burns Lake than what senior forest professionals in government estimated just last year - one million cubic metres of wood a year instead of 500,000.
How did the committee magically double timber supply? With three key recommendations.
First, that more "marginally economic" forests be logged. Second, that the government underwrite a massive fertilization program to boost tree growth. And third - and here committee members use weasel words to mask the true intent of their proposition - to increase the logging of remnant old-growth forests that were previously ruled off-limits to logging.
It is far from clear that this will produce enough wood to supply a rebuilt mill.
First "marginal" forests are marginal for a reason. They are generally of inferior quality, further from mills and more costly to log. And they are often found in places where trees grow less vigorously, for example at higher elevations. Hence, they are risky to log, both economically and environmentally.
Second, with government having drastically curtailed its investments in growing trees, no one should assume there is appetite for big spending increases on fertilization. Never mind the ecological impacts of repeated applications of tree fertilizers on shallow soils and on our waterways, fish populations and other plant life in our forests.
Third, perceived increases in old-growth logging could prove a nightmare in international markets where the B.C. government and forest companies alike have worked judiciously to have forestry operations independently certified as sustainably managed.
If the government embraces the committee's recommendations for Burns Lake, expect the same unsustainable logging practices to be applied province wide, and with devastating consequences.
The real tragedy in the committee members' recommendations is that they are well aware of where the real challenges lie. The committee acknowledges the essential importance of improved forest inventories - looking at how many healthy trees we have. Why isn't this the first order of business? B.C. needs an expedited, thorough assessment now, before we have committed to even more unsustainable logging rates.
To proceed with logging increases before such work is done is irresponsible and an insult to forest-dependent com-munities across the province.
Anthony Britneff recently retired from a 40-year career as a professional forester with the B.C. Forest Service. Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
© Copyright (c) The Province

Friday, August 17, 2012

Clear cutting in marginally economic forests

The Special Legislative Committee on Timber supply, identified marginally economic forests as a potential source of timber to replace losses caused by the massive mountain pine beetle epidemic. To create incentive to harvest, a volume of timber that can only be taken from marginally economic forests will be determined.

Is this a good idea and how will it affect the local forest landscape?  This politically driven centralized forest policy emanating from Victoria will trickle down to the local landscape with a spectrum of results. In some cases the results will be good, but there are a number of factors at play that will tend to propel results to the bottom end of the spectrum.

The notion of marginally economic forests tends to bring a picture of a few bits and pieces of poor forest scattered at the edge of an otherwise harvestable forest. In a few forest landscapes in BC, this may be the case, but the in average forest landscape only about half of the forest is harvestable. The environmental movement worked hard to get approximately 13% of BC protected in parks. The non harvestable area of forests exceeds the area in parks and for the most part it forms a huge area that will remain in natural condition. When combined with alpine areas, it is BC's largest wilderness.

The report of the committee on timber supply noted the importance of protecting the BC brand of sustainable forest management and forest certification. However, if the committee had been versed in the concepts of sustainable forest management embodied in the Montreal Process, an international agreement and standard, they could have taken another view of marginally economic forests. The standard encourages forests to be managed for multiple social and economic benefits. Marginally economic stands and alpine areas within working forest landscapes offer opportunities for non consumptive nature based economic activities. If these are developed by way of trails and other infrastructure, there are added recreational and social benefits. The title of the committee's report "Growing fibre, growing Value" is a Freudian slip indicating that timber values are paramount, and that the main role of BC's public forests is to feed timber to an oligarchy of forest corporations that secured BC's public timber supply in the 20th Century. Needed diversification of BC's forest economy to include value added manufacture and nature based economic activities will not occur until BC's public timber supply is freed from present hands. The report of the committee would strengthen that hold by enabling the oligarchy to have long term area based tenures in public forests. This sets the stage for enclosure of public forests into the private interest.

Diversification of BC's forest economy would increase the value of raw logs. This would give more options for sustainable forest management in marginally economic forests and would reduce the impetus for log exports. Given that the report makes recommendations that will sustain the hold of the commodity forest products oligarchy on BC's public timber supply, there will be a range of problems in harvesting marginally economic forests.

Some of the site conditions in a marginally economic forest stand may point toward  the application non clear cutting silvicultural system, but cost factors will dictate clear cutting because it is less costly. It should be pointed out that clear cutting is not always bad. A marginally economic forest stand may be composed mainly of a species that suffers disease and decline with age. Lodge Pole pine becomes susceptible to attack by mountain pine beetle after 80 years, and harvest may be a forest health benefit. (This fact rather than climate change is the main reason for the larger than natural outbreak of mountain pine beetle that has wasted $100 Billion worth of timber in BC's central interior) Clear cutting with appropriate harvesting equipment that does not cause excessive soil disturbance could be a benefit for the forest and the economy.

Many marginally economic forests in BC are at the edge of accessibility on steep or mountainous terrain. There are cost pressures in building forest roads and transporting logs. Ground based harvesting involving wheeled or tracked machines that move logs over the ground are more suited to gentle terrain. This type of harvesting is at the lowest end of the spectrum in terms of logging cost. If the terrain is steeper and you need to use cable logging equipment or helicopters, then logging costs push upwards. There is impetus for the logger to use ground based harvesting equipment on slopes that are too steep to reduce costs. Soil disturbance and erosion can be considerable.

There are opportunities for additional timber supply in marginally economic forests, but there is a major risk that things will go sadly wrong owing to the pressure to cut costs.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Special Timber Supply Committee Report

The BC Legislative Committee on Timber Supply has completed its report entitled "Growing fibre, growing value".
Read the report at:

The Committee of elected representatives went to the effort of travelling the Province to take advice about the problems in BC forestry. It has summarized the advice and developed recommendations. The process was thorough and effort was made.

Unfortunately, the whole process was parochial since it examined symptoms within the BC public forests box, and proposed a line of solutions. This was not entirely the fault of the committee because most of the forestry folk that showed up to give advice were in the same box. "You cannot solve a problem until you know what the problem is".  The Committee owes its existence to the mountain pine beetle epidemic that will reduce timber supply in the central interior of BC for decades. The outbreak was larger than a normal natural event. The committee did not prod into the causes of this outbreak and seems to accept the broadcast view that it is a black swan event caused by climate change.

The Committee had two ex-Chief Foresters or the officials in charge of setting the level of timber harvest. These advisers probably had a hand in one of the main recommendations aimed at finding some additional timber supply. There is potential to find additional timber from marginally economic forest stands. To create incentive to harvest these marginally economic stands, allowable harvests could be "partitioned".  This is the jargon for identifying a volume of timber that can only be taken from marginally economic stands. This is an administrative technique that Chief Foresters can and should exercise.

If Chief Foresters of the Ministry of Forests from about 1960 had consistently required lodge pole pine to be harvested by partitioning in Timber Supply Areas in the central interior, large areas of the species would not have become old and susceptible to mountain beetle attack. Probably some outbreaks would have occurred but a mega- outbreak involving the loss of $100 Billion in timber could have been avoided. Why was this not done? The answer gets you to the root problem that needs to be solved.

After World War II, BC wanted money and economic development and turned the harvest from its abundant public forests over to a few forest corporations, essentially turning the BC forest industry into a Government supported oligopoly. This is why we are burdened with discriminatory wood export tariffs. Oligopolies support oligarchy or a system of a few big feeders at the top that need to get fed. The supply of public timber was done on a very lenient basis and our forests and forest dependent communities are now suffering.

The elephant in the room is the whole mindset to needing to feed forest corporations with our public forests. It is not bringing long term prosperity to BC. One of the main problems with the committee's report is that it opens up new feeding opportunities in our public forests. The idea of area based tenures and encouraging private investment set up the future for enclosure of public forests into the private interest. The title of the report " Growing fibre, Growing value" is an oxymoron. If you think of wood as fibre, you think of wood fibres in paper pulp or some low value commodity wood product. Value in wood is usually about some product that demonstrates the natural aesthetic qualities of wood.

The Western Maple brackets joining Douglas Fir beams in this timber frame house is about adding value to wood. The oligopoly holding most of BC's public timber supply is mainly into commodity wood products and there has been little timber supply to value added manufacturers.

We are not going to solve BC's forest problems with the type of thinking that caused the problems in the first place.