Friday, December 6, 2013

Parks and Forests in natural condition in British Columbia

Western Red Cedar in a virgin protected forest in coastal British Columbia

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has a system of categories for classifying Parks or protected areas. The top or number 1 category are parks that protect areas in natural or virgin condition. Some countries have little or no areas in truly natural condition to include within their Parks or Protected areas.

British Columbia has 14.1 million hectares or 14.8% of its area protected in Parks. These Parks contain 7.6 million hectares of forest, mostly in natural condition.  These statistics on area protected look good, even by international standards. Even the environmental organizations that campaigned to increase the area of BC Parks seem to be unaware that there is another 30 million hectares of forest and wilderness in BC that is in natural or virgin condition.

Timber producing forest landscapes contain 55 million hectares of which only 22 million hectares can be harvested. The remainder is the 33 million hectares of forest and wilderness that is likely to remain in natural or virgin condition.  That is an area the size of Norway or Poland or Italy. If you add the 14 million hectares protected in Parks you come up with an area greater than Sweden. What stewardship is afforded these 40 million hectares of forest and wild land in natural condition?

Parks or protected areas hold a place in the public or political consciousness that is a little problematic. Environmental groups campaign to save forests in parks. If and area gets designated as a park the goal is accomplished. A protected area is also seen as a sacrifice to nature. If humans are going to leave these areas alone it seems to follow that little or no human input or expenditure will be required. Politicians get these factors on their radar screen and the result is often lack of funds or provision for protecting Parks. USA was one of the first countries to designate National Parks in the 1800's. The US Army acted as the protectors of Parks for some years until it was realized that a Park Service was required. BC Parks is likewise underfunded and lacks the capacity to provide full stewardship and protection to 14 million hectares. The additional 30 million hectares of forest and wilderness in natural condition within timber producing landscapes exists as a homeless orphan. Timber production is king in these landscapes. Oil, gas and mineral exploration is also a factor in some forest landscapes. The BC Government is giving the forest corporations that manage these landscapes for timber production increasing management responsibilities. The legal and institutional framework is set up to manage timber in these landscapes, so the remaining area gets little attention.
Even BC Parks, a government agency has been scaled down and most of the maintenance in protected areas is carried out by private management companies. Expenditures are focused on park entrances, parking lots, camping and picnic grounds. The back country within protected areas gets little attention. BC Parks have insufficient staff to inspect back country trails and only direct the park management company to remove a fallen tree across a trail if a member of the public reports the problem.

Almost half of British Columbia remains in natural virgin condition. This area is unrecognized and under valued. It is not scarce and it seems to have limited economic value. Sustainability requires patience. Canada and especially BC has built an economy on resource extraction. An attitude of "take it now" prevails. Time has not moderated this perspective and it is perhaps being enhanced by Canada's intent to become a major energy supplier. A non-renewable mindset goes with the rapid exploitation of tar sands, oil and gas resources and the need for pipelines and to transport these energy resources to as many markets as quickly as possible. Although the forests of BC were probably exploited too quickly, some effort was made to plant trees and think of the future.

Long term sustainability and protection of the large area of land in virgin condition in British Columbia is likely to be enhanced if maintaining its virgin condition is seen as having economic value. Its value is best realized by nature based economic enterprises that would rely on very basic development such as hiking trails and mountain cabins. These are small scale economic activities suited to local communities that may also wish to volunteer some of the effort to develop trails etc.for local recreation and amenity. Although this type of development could add significant economic activity and tourist dollars to a forest dependent communities, it barely registers as economic activity in the minds of politicians and corporate executives. These folk reside in the penthouses of corporate towers in major cities with intent to raid the wealth of the hinterland and small communities usually with willing assistance of politicians.

Devolution of control of public land to local communities will enhance the diversity of local economies. Nature based economic activity that relies on the long term integrity of areas in virgin condition is more likely to be fostered under local control. Central control brings a lack of diversity as major corporations focus on the extraction of a single resource commodity. Local Forest Trusts operating as a business under a charter to manage and sustain all resource values in the local landscape would have the freedom to take some of the proceeds of timber extraction from the local forest and apply it to recreational trail development. The local tourism economy will be enhanced. While British Columbia residents seems to be satisfied with the considerable area of BC protected in Parks, few seem to be aware that their stewardship is underfunded and undertaken by management companies rather than directly by the British Columbia Parks Service. Local Forest Trusts that develop the capacity to provide stewardship to their areas in virgin condition would be well placed to manage local Parks.

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