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.

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