Sunday, June 30, 2013

Forest Conservation: Are we progressing In British Columbia?

Forest conservation is a concept with several meanings.  A century ago, forest conservation was understood to be good forest management as opposed to a cut and run relationship with the forest. In more recent times, forest conservation is more often associated with the notion of protecting forests in their natural condition, often in parks or protective areas.

Whatever slant you give to the meaning of forest conservation, it has something to do with a harmonious relationship between man and the forest. We have had thousands of years of laws and religions that have attempted to assist human beings with harmonious relationships with others. We have made some progress, but where does that leave our relationship with the forest.

The above photograph is a timber producing landscape on Vancouver Island. All the forest has been harvested and new forest has been established. The tree species composition is similar to the previous virgin forest.  If the forest were to be left alone for 100 years it would develop characteristics similar to the previous old growth forest. Is this then an example of forest conservation? At least to some extent the forest has been maintained in this landscape. Most of this forest will be harvested before it is 100 years old, and problems may or may not develop with short rotations as opposed to several hundred year rotations in nature.

Human caused effects on this landscape are not uniform. The lines of forest roads are visible on the mountainsides. The lines are visible for two reasons. There are visible pieces of erosion along the roads that catch the eye. However, it is the difference in vegetation on the roadsides that delineates most of the length. The forest ecosystem has pulled out nitrogen fixing red alder to rehabilitate and bind the disturbed mineral soil along the roads. The coastal rain forests of British Columbia have considerable resilience and try to conserve themselves against our attacks. Coastal forests have also grabbed an new species to add to the tool box for rehabilitating disturbed soils along roads. It is the alien and invasive Scotch Broom that comes from the Mediterranean. Forest resilience and conservation can be more than a little paradoxical.

The more recent notion of forest conservation by establishing protected areas or parks is not without paradox. Saving forests and placing them in parks or protected areas has been pursued by environmental organisations for several decades with religious zeal and fervor.
In British Columbia, more than 13 million hectares has achieved salvation in protected areas. We forgot to ask a few basic questions in this exercise. We have saved some forests from ourselves and it is ourselves that will manage these protected areas. Does the absolution of protected areas free us from the need to practice conservation in timber producing forests? We will use our protected areas for recreation and that requires effective management.

The mere designation of parks or protected areas is a simple, easy to understand wrong answer to a complex problem. Politicians understand that they can satisfy the public, at least for some length of time with these simple often politically correct answers. The BC Parks system involves a very large area but it is under funded. Giving forests a sacred designation is likely to produce some systemic problems in the priesthood or managers that will look after the areas. While protected area management does need specialist ecologists that know about sensitive sites species and habitats, it also requires the knowledge and experience of natural resource and forest professionals to ensure adequate protection.

If we return to the photo, and the lines of forest roads in the landscape above, we notice a few erosion problems. However, these forest roads were clearly engineered by foresters because their gradients are controlled and gradual.  Natural drainage flows have been allowed to cross under the roads. These rain forest hillsides are subject to high rainfall storms in winter. Without the attention to gradient control and drainage, the erosive impact on the slopes would be severe. While trails in a park are narrow compared to a road, they are rarely supplied with drains and culverts. If a trail has inadequate location engineering and gradient control it can erode and trigger landslides just like a road.

How can you tell if a forest is being conserved and there is a harmonious relationship between man and the forest? If you know little about trees or ecosystems, just look at the footprint or the quality of the forest roads or trails and you get the whole picture.

 Sustainable trails in a park or protected area are often defined as having "a low environmental footprint". This is a good public relations definition that likely to translate to different things on the ground. A  rather literal and often "green" view of the definition will result in a trail that is barely built. As rocks and roots become exposed with the wear of foot traffic, the trail will become an obstacle course of tripping hazards. People will try to avoid the hazards and the trail will widen. Designers of these low foot print trails may stay far away from sensitive sites and deprive users from views and other points of interest. Users may respond by going off trail and trampling sensitive sites. Some of these "green" foot trails give little regard to gradient control and go up and down in the landscape resulting in exhausted users and often considerable erosion. Some conservation agencies end up with big environmental footprints from non engineered "green" trails.

If you add a little forest engineering discipline to the low environmental footprint trail and give attention to gradient control, cross drainage, placement of the trail on the terrain and construction standards, the result is a sustainable trail with a safe tread or running surface.  The forest engineer will give regard to the energy requirements of the machine or person and design a route that does not waste effort. The forest engineer will understand that people do not go into the forest just to look at trees. The forest road is there to get wood and maintain the forest. The forest trail in a park is there to provide points of interest and views. If the trail is interesting, users will stay on the trail and sensitive areas will not be damaged.

The Montreal Process, an international agreement on sustainable management and forest conservation in temperate and boreal forests covers timber producing forests and parks or protected areas. Forest conservation featuring a harmonious relationship between man and the land is needed in timber producing forests and in parks or protected areas. The average timber producing public forest landscape in British Columbia contains forest and alpine areas that will never be suitable for timber production. These areas are natural virgin condition and represent an un-designated parks or wilderness area that is larger than the the substantial system of designated parks. If timber producing public forest landscapes were managed to comply with the Montreal Process definition of sustainable forest management, the non timber harvesting areas would be managed like parks to encourage local nature based forest economic activity.

Are we making progress in forest conservation in British Columbia?
One hundred years ago we decided to keep most of our forests in public ownership to ensure forest conservation.
We did this because forest companies had a poor record of forest conservation.
Then we gave harvesting rights to forest companies and encouraged them to take forest management responsibilities.
This resulted in a timber harvesting economic binge.
Environmental movements complained and more forests got saved in protected areas.
The popular perception is that forest conservation is something that applies only to parks or protected areas.
The trustee of forest conservation is the BC Government and it has never risen to its responsibilities and does not supply adequate funds for forest conservation of Parks and protected areas.

There has been increased scientific understanding of forest conservation and technical advances in forest conservation in the last 100 years. If forest conservation is about a harmonious relationship between man and the forest, then you need a legal and institutional framework that supports forest conservation and sustainable forest management. A good framework requires public understanding or a forest ethic. British Columbia's common or political vision of forest conservation has regressed in the past 100 years. Now it only applies to parks and protected areas. The institutional framework for forest conservation in timber producing forests was corrupted in a tenure system that is primarily a framework for preferential allocation of harvesting rights to forest corporations. Forest conservation in the form of regulation or wise advice of the professional forester has always had an uneasy fit in a system that is really about power, revenue and profits of central government and forest corporations. It is also a system of gradual enclosure of the public forests into the private interest. The conserved parks and protected area system will be used by politicians as a fob of retained public forest, as the process of enclosure of the remaining public forests proceeds toward its inevitable conclusion.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Loyal Forest Contractors of British Columbia

Forest contractors do much of the work in the forests of British Columbia. Forest contractors come in many shapes and sizes ranging from the owner operator of a logging truck to relatively large operators that do all the jobs from falling trees to the delivery of logs to the mill.  Forest contractors may grumble about their contracts and conditions, but these hard working long suffering folk have been loyal to the system of arrangements for managing the public forests of BC. Forest contractors have taken severe knocks on the coast of BC for some time and reductions in harvest in the interior of BC caused by the mountain pine beetle epidemic will have negative effects.

Forest contractor associations like the Truck Loggers Association have been around for more than 70 years. These associations are aware of the need for good forest stewardship and are led by robust characters and personalities that might be inclined to challenge the status quo. However, they generally give support to the existing system of forest management conducted by the BC Government and forest corporations. These loyal folk probably do not want to bite the hand that feeds.

When the present system of forest management started to take shape at the end of WWII, it took place with mutual and shared expectations and responsibilities. Harvesting rights were allocated to forest corporations that agreed to invest in wood processing plants in local communities. The forest corporations often played a key role in the development and life of these communities. Forest corporations such as MacMillan Bloedel were flagships of the BC economy, and the community of Port Alberni on Vancouver Island thrived in the heyday of this company. Now, this company is gone and a new form of global capitalism is the order of the day. Forest corporations have closed wood processing plants in some communities such as Youbou  on Vancouver Island and the BC Government has allowed the retention of the associated harvesting rights. Loyalty and mutual obligation seem to be largely removed from present circumstances.

Loyalty and obligation are necessary elements in the relationship between a society and its forests. New capitalism and regressive political conservatism and the notion that markets will fix everything is a philosophy that will lead to stumps rather than forests or at very least some bumps in sustainable supplies from forests. Most of BC's independent forest contractors have already felt a few bumps in the road. Perhaps it is time for BC's forest contractors to envision themselves in some new arrangements for governance and management of our forests.

What job does the independent forest contractor do? He or she takes public timber off the hill to market or does some silvicultural work in public forests. The contractor should be working for the public but does not, because the wood has in most cases been allocated by government to a forest corporation. The forest contractor is the little guy in a preferential non market system set up for forest corporations by government.

Although most forest contractors do their work in a public forest, very few would want to work for the government or a centrally managed government forest. Given the huge size of BC's public forest this arrangement would probably end up in a total shambles. If the trustee ship for public forests was devolved to local forest trusts, they would contract to these local forest business operations that would have an elected board and professional staff. Harvested timber would be sold on an open market. The open market would encourage diversity in wood products and higher return to the forest for quality timber. The local forest landscape would be operated on a sustainable basis ensuring a continuity of local work.

Local forest trusts would be accountable and audited by a BC Forest Trust Assembly governed by elected and professional delegates from local forest trusts. The BC Forest Trust Assembly would also act as a court of appeal for any forest contractor.

Local forest trusts would revitalize the BC forest sector. An open market for timber would increase returns to the local forest that would be operated as a sustainable business. The forest contractor would have a more stable future and would have an important role in sustaining the local forest.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Free enterprise and public forests

Most of British Columbia's forests are in public ownership. Political perspectives of our time would lead one to think that public ownership of forests and free enterprise are rather incompatible. Public ownership of forests was actually promoted as a boon to free enterprise. It was one of the main selling points for the formation of the National Forests in USA. Public ownership was seen as a way to ensure good forest management to sustain timber supplies. Since the timber supplies would not be owned by lumber barons and forest corporations, supplies of timber could be sold in an open market to any buyer. This arrangement was supposed to encourage a diverse range of wood manufacturing. Gifford Pinchot, a sturdy forester, managed to sell this idea for public forests in the wild west of USA.

Gifford Pinchot sold public forests to USA and also sold the innovative idea to a BC Royal Commission on forests in 1909. Pinchot's largest contiguous public forest comprises most of British Columbia. BC was on the periphery of European expansion in North America, and has shared the milieu of free enterprise in a land of abundant resources. Since WWII, BC provincial government administrations have been mainly free enterprise coalitions. It ran under the banner of Social Credit for decades and now runs under the banner of Liberal. The Liberal title is perhaps quite confusing especially to any American readers because it is considerably right of the center of the political spectrum.

"Free enterprise" in BC frames the idea of the hard working individual using ingenuity to generate economic activity from the potential of abundant natural resources. This picture might be true for the farm homesteader on the western Canadian prairie but the endeavor of extracting resources in a mountainous Province such as BC usually required considerable capital. BC's free enterprise since the late 1800's has been about relationships with robber barons or resource corporations. Canada connected the country together by giving land grants to railway companies. "Free enterprise" in BC has in many cases meant holding your nose in a lenient deal with big capital in the hope that everyone will go along because there will be trickle down dollars.

When I mention that BC public forests have been in a state of gradual enclosure into the private interest since WWII, I often hear the response: "That will never happen in BC". Unfortunately it has already happened to a large area of the best forest land in BC. A huge chunk of eastern Vancouver Island was given to a coal baron who built a railway from Victoria to Nanaimo. The Canadian Government paid for the railway construction. There was strong opposition at the time but the deal went through because the majority thought that they would gain.

Enterprise in BC's public forests has been about taking timber from the forest to run saw mills and pulp mills. The forest has not been run as a business enterprise. Forest corporations were given timber harvesting rights in public forests if they would construct a mill. The timber allocations were subject to administrative pricing and the timber stumpage revenue went into general government revenue to be spent on roads, schools hospitals etc. Sufficient funds were not returned for forest stewardship. The "free enterprise" involved a lenient relationship with a few forest corporations that turned BC's forest sector into a government supported oligopoly. The arrangements have really amounted to costly enterprise. Forest companies were allowed to feast on the most profitable timber. The forest sector was working on easy street for several decades and in a poor position to handle the inevitable years of harvest of less profitable timber that would follow. Millions of hectares of less valuable lodge pole pine were left for later. This aging pine became susceptible with advancing age to mountain pine beetle attack and the beetles fed on a $100 billion worth. The lack of an open market restricted the diversity of wood products manufacture. The cost of harvesting some timber on the BC coast is so high that the only market is log exports to countries that can manufacture sufficient value out of the logs. Administered prices rather than market prices for public timber made BC wood products vulnerable to accusations of subsidy and export tariffs or taxes.

Perhaps the most important flaw in the shared arrangements for forest management between the BC Government and forest corporations is lack of incentive to spend the necessary funds for long term stewardship. Forest companies have to ensure regeneration after harvest, but there is no incentive to do any more than the minimum. Roads and other infrastructure are often left to erode or decay. Government tends to spend its stumpage income from the forest elsewhere for political purposes. BC's forests are being degraded to support a corporate welfare scheme. BC scheme of forest management incorporates the worst elements of the private sector and the government sector into a single package: central government boondoggling and private sector greed.

Is there a way to incorporate the best aspects of the private sector and the public sector to manage public forests?  If a local forest landscape was operated as a forest business or enterprise, forest managers would be able to ensure that forest stewardship and infrastructure are maintained from income to ensure the long term sustainability of the business. There would be incentive to develop non timber income streams from non timber forest resources and nature based enterprises. These in turn provide incentive to maintain the quality of the forest environment. Generating additional non timber economic activity for the local economy is a major element in international sustainable forest management standards. It is an item that is largely ignored in the wood products marketing based sustainable forest management certification standards. More than half of the average forest landscape in BC is not suitable for timber production.

 The local forest landscape can be operated as  a local forest trust under documents requiring sustainable forest management to international standards. The shareholders are the local public and the wider BC public. A local elected board and professional resource managers would manage the local forest trust as a business. Local forest trusts would be accountable to the wider BC public through a BC Forest Trust Assembly. The Forest Trust Assembly would audit local forest trusts, provide collective services and act as a court of appeal.  The whole system would be supported by forest income and the forests would not be a drain on the taxpayer. It would be run on a private sector model with the shareholder public participating on boards through election. This arrangement gives private sector performance, direct participatory democracy without the problems of central government bureaucracy. It would put competition, incentive and innovation back into BC's forest sector and replace a failing non competitive system.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Community Involvement in Forests

Communities, groups and individuals can get directly involved in their local forests by volunteering to build or maintain trails or other recreational facilities. In British Columbia, most of the forest is in public ownership and there are opportunities to get involved. BC Parks tries to encourage volunteers. There are 13 million hectares of Parks in BC. In addition to parks there is over 20 million hectares of wilderness in natural condition in forest landscapes that supply timber. Over 30 million hectares amounts to an area the size of Germany or Poland.

What are the benefits of volunteering to build or maintain forest trails and recreation facilities? There are direct health benefits to the volunteers through the exercise of walking and working in the forest. The trails enable a community to extend its recreational opportunities out to the forest. This provides recreational benefits to community residents and it can also attract visitors that bring economic benefits. While forest trails provide physical extension of a community out into the forest, they also help to increase community interest in all aspects of forest stewardship. It could help to ensure sustainability of timber supplies. A local forest ethic can be of vital importance to sustaining the economy of a forest dependent community.

Although Canada is identified as a land of forests, British Columbia is the premier forest Province in the country. It is an environment of forests, but forests and a forest ethic are not a strong feature of our culture. Some forested areas in the world have distinctive local architecture often involving big timber. BC has bigger timber than most, but there has been little expression in local architecture. In fact, the forest influence on local culture seems to be declining. A large proportion of BC's population is in big southern cities and diversity in BC's economy has reduced the eminence of the forest sector in the economy. Our large areas of timber producing forests are managed jointly and somewhat centrally by the BC Government and forest corporations. The legal and institutional framework for managing public forests has all but succeeded in taking local participation out of the equation except for a few little opportunities to comment. A gradual handover of increasing forest management responsibilities to forest corporations over the past 60 years means that the public lands of British Columbia are in a process of enclosure into private ownership, just like the common lands of parts of Europe several centuries ago. The forest sector and the government maintains that the setup in regard to forests is democratic.  However, public forests were scarcely mentioned in a recent provincial election campaign.

Community volunteering in forests, particularly in the building and maintenance of trails and recreational facilities makes a strong statement about the value of public forests to the community. Most of all it is a statement for freedom. The public has the right to have access and recreate in 30 million hectares of wilderness. If BC's public forests get gradually privatized, gates will go up and access will be restricted.

To encourage community involvement in building forest trails and recreational facilities, This blog hopes to feature some example projects from BC and other parts of the world. If you are a volunteer in a forest trail or recreation project in a forest or protected area or park, please send some information and especially photographs to:
Users of BC parks are also encouraged to send photographs and information on trails in BC Parks. We have had some reports of severe erosion on some trails in BC Parks and the agency seems to have a woefully inadequate budget for trails and maintenance.