Friday, January 24, 2014

Log Exports and the funny business of forestry in BC

The issue of log exports from British Columbia forests comes up on a regular basis. The public and communities see log exports as a loss of local wood products manufacturing jobs and income. The simple solution is to ban or restrict log exports.

British Columbia has had legislation aimed at restricting log exports for a century, and logs cannot be exported without getting special approval. The issue continues like a festering sore that never gets healed. There are economic arguments on both sides of the issue. On the coast of BC, where harvesting and transport costs can be high, gaining a better price for a portion of the harvest by exporting the logs can make a logging operation viable. Work and income is generated by exporting logs.

Both sides of the argument should be asking some basic questions. Logs are expensive to transport. Wood products can be packed or bundled for long distance transport without the weight of the bark, sawdust or wood chips produced in the manufacturing process. We should be asking ourselves why offshore wood manufacturers can afford to pay more for our logs and transport them over great distances. Lower labor costs may be a factor, but offshore manufacturers are also adding higher value. BC's inability to add equivalent value in wood manufacture is rooted in the institutional framework for managing public forests.

 Public forests with the BC Government as trustee, were supposed to provide a higher standard of forest stewardship to sustain timber supplies. In addition, public forests were intended to ensure that forest resources would not end up in the hands of a small number of forest corporations that could restrict the availability of timber and the development of a diversified competitive wood products manufacturing sector.

The whole intent of public forests as an institution has been undermined. Instead of ensuring good forest management, BC politicians have seen our public forests as a money barrel. They allocated rights to harvest timber to forest companies. Today, after some corporate concentration, a few forest corporations control most of the harvest from public forests. Timber from public forests is priced on an administrative pricing system and there is no real market for public timber. The corporations that hold most of the harvest from public forests are commodity wood products producers. Value adding manufacturers have difficulty in getting timber because the market is restricted. A portion of the harvest is sold by the government operated BC Timber Sales, but its limited percentage of the timber supply does not amount to a real market.

Since public timber is allocated to forest corporations, real market value is never determined. Public forests are not operated like a business. Timber is a natural resource that can be taken from the forest. The BC Government and forest corporations get income from the timber and both parties have been reluctant to return enough to ensure adequate forest stewardship.

The public are shareholders of the public forest and they are denied normal expectations of a shareholder in an enterprise. The forest is not managed in their interest by competent professional managers. A great deal has been made of public involvement in forest management in BC in recent years. Most of this much lauded involvement comprises the right to comment on the forest plans of a forest corporation made in the interests of profit and the corporation's shareholders.

The public should expect that their forests to be operated like a business. It should be managed by professionals directly accountable to the public. Timber should be sold on an open market to realize its real value. Necessary forest stewardship should be funded directly out of income to sustain the forest enterprise in the long term. Timber will be available for purchase on a competitive basis. Wood products manufacturing will become more competitive and diversified. Log prices will increase and there will be less incentive to export logs.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Truck Logger BC magazine provides a forum for debate on area based forest management

Debate is needed on institutional arrangements for long term area based forest management in the public forest of British Columbia. This is an important issue. Truck Logger BC, the magazine of the Truck Loggers Association has done a good job of bringing the issues to the public square.

The institutional arrangement for area based forest management that is most proposed is the conversion of existing timber tenures into long term area based tenures. Those that are opposed to this arrangement have been subjected to false, misleading, straw man arguments that they are opposed to area based forest management. Area based forest management has many advantages and there are other institutional arrangements available for its implementation in the public forests of British Columbia.

The following letter has been sent to Brenda Martin, editor of the magazine as a reminder that there are different ways of implementing area based forest management:

To: Brenda Martin, Editor
Truck Logger BC
Re: Institutions for Area Based Forest Management

Truck Logger BC is to be commended for providing a forum for the discussion of area based forest management.

Area based forest management is a good solution and should be implemented in BC. We need good institutions for implementing long term area based forest management. It is unwise to assume that a roll-over of the present tenure arrangements will provide satisfactory institutional arrangements that will be good for the forest, forest contractors and their communities in the long term.
Our strongest foundational institution for ensuring sustainable forest management in British Columbia is our large un-fragmented area of public forests. It was intended to provide the primary tenure holders, the public, with a high standard of independent forest management and an open and unrestricted market for public timber to stimulate a free enterprise forest industry.

Are we going to achieve satisfactory area based forest management by fragmenting and enclosing our large areas of public forests into long term private and corporate holdings?  A non-market, allocated timber supply will ensure long term vulnerability to discriminatory wood export tariffs.  A diversity of area based tenures will only exacerbate the problem of fragmentation. Is this solution likely to provide strong social license, or initiate a sustained campaign of civil disobedience?

A promising solution for long term area based forest management is devolution of the control of public forests to local forest trusts. The local forest trusts would have a charter to manage a large, economic and un-fragmented area of public forest landscape. Local communities and rural areas would have elected representatives on a board and there would be professional forest managers charged with comprehensive management of all forest resources and forest economic opportunities. The trusts would be operated on a business basis and timber would be freely available on an open market. Revenue needed to maintain the forest could not be scalped off by central government or corporations. Local forest trusts would be supported and audited by a British Columbia Forest Trust Assembly governed by elected and professional delegates from local forest trusts.

Truck Loggers are innovative, enterprising and quick to adopt a better way of doing things. An area based tenure is about as up to date as a wooden spar tree. It is our forest and it should be managed for us.  Area based forest management does not have to come with increased corporate control and enclosure of our public forests. It could come with a democratic local board, accountable independent professional forest managers, an open market, free enterprise and a court of appeal in a BC Forest Trust Assembly.

Click on Democratic area based forest trusts in the side bar for more information

Friday, January 3, 2014

Forests, Sustainability, patience and long term thinking in British Columbia

In the last 100 to 200 years, in less time than it took this tree to grow, there has been considerable change in the relationship between human society and the forest in British Columbia. First Nations people lived in the forest. It was home, a source of food, medicine, shelter and a temple. Now the forest is seen as timber, possibly a place for recreation by a population that is increasingly urban and removed from the forest.

Since most of the forests of British Columbia are public forests, there have been ongoing requests for commissions, hearing and public discussions on our forests. Commissions and the like have been conducted for more than 100 years. When these events occur, the line up of contributors is always predictable. Timber interests are there to see if they can increase their share of the timber pie. (They probably arrived with a chainsaw in the back of the pick-up truck.)  Foresters and other resource professionals are there with a host of technical solutions. Environmentalists are there with a share of doom and gloom trying to save the forests from treatments the others might bring to the forest. The diverse and polarized input usually has only one thing in common. It is about satisfying self interest in the perspective of now. The commission or other forum will usually have a terms of reference about solving present problems.

The forest sector in British Columbia is experiencing problems and solutions are needed now. However, most of the problems are the result of past decisions where folk were finding similar immediate solutions without thinking about the past, present and future. The relationship of society to its forests is perhaps the most important factor in sustaining forests ecosystems in healthy condition. The laws, institutions, and education that support sustainable forests need to instill an ethic of long term care that requires thinking for the long term, rather than just the present.

Humans seem to be very good at solving the problems of problems of now. Civilization seems to have resulted from our ability to solve immediate and pressing problems. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle probably involved patient waiting for seasons that would bring sufficient sustenance and the problem of starvation or near starvation pushed us toward necessary manipulations to speed things up a bit. Agriculture is essentially an organizing and speeding up of food growing and it is the underpinning of what we call civilization. Our exploitation of fossil fuel and the development of mechanical slaves, along with chemical fertilizers and pesticides derived mainly from oil has put agriculture into overdrive. Use of mechanical slaves driven by fossil fuels has enabled lots of the "civilized" population to head for big cities and away from the land.

The march of "civilization" from early agriculture to fast cars, computer devices, and city living has taken thousands of years. However, this transition in British Columbia has occurred in less time than it takes a big tree to grow. Forests take a long time to grow and mature. Forests are exercises in patience. Much of what we call civilization seems to have been an exercise in impatience. The forests of Eurasia took quite a beating from civilization. Modern forestry started in Europe in an attempt to restore exploited forests. An agricultural approach with orderly plantings of single tree species was used. Industrial forest management, featuring clear cutting and short rotations remains as an agricultural approach to forest management.

While many of the forest problems in BC are due to impatient short term thinking, our societal relationship with our forests, reflected in the laws institutions and infrastructure that supports forest management does have some elements of patient long term thinking. Since most of our forests are public, our ideas about how to treat them has been a tug of war in the public square. However, the patient long term thinking team has almost been dragged out of the square by the short term team.

The high point for patient long term thinking about the stewardship of BC's forests came in a Royal Commission of 1909. It recommended that the forests of BC be retained in public ownership and a professional forest service be established to ensure sustainable stewardship. Public ownership was not selected because it was some socialist ideal. Rather, a conservation movement in USA prompted by rapid forest exploitation, resulted in the establishment of the US National Forests. Government was seen as a more enduring long term trustee for forests than timber interests. Free enterprise in wood manufacturing industries would be encouraged because timber from public forests would be more readily available than timber owned by timber interests. Gifford Pinchot the American forester and politician that led the charge for US National Forests advised the 1909 Royal Commission.

The largest contiguous public forest brought into being by Gifford Pinchot's ideas lies in British Columbia. Since the entire concept of public forests was not home grown it has been subject to considerable erosion and undermining ever since. The 1909 Commission even noted that the role of successive political administrations of the Government of British Columbia was to gradually develop a wise system of sustainable stewardship. A British Columbia Forest Service was established in 1912. Unfortunately the enlightened ideas of early last century were cast aside in 1914 with WWI. It was followed by a great depression and WWII.

At the end of WWII, British Columbia had huge areas of virgin forests remaining, while the US timber supplies had not fully recovered from earlier exploitation. There would be a post war housing construction boom and the timber in BC forests was dollars waiting to be realized as fast as possible. Short term thinking prevailed and BC started to undermine the long term foundations of its public forest institutions. Timber interests were let back into public forests, if they would build a saw mill or pulp mill. Harvesting rights under a system of non-market administrative prices were granted to forest corporations. Forest corporations would also start to share forest management responsibilities with the Forest Service. The independence of the professional forest management agency was undermined and there was no open market for public timber.

The BC Forest Service or Ministry of Forests, became a sympathetic administrator to forest corporations, rather than a professional forest management agency. As it delegated more forest management responsibilities to forest corporations, it lost capacity, authority and a foundation for good decisions. The Ministry of Forests retains one of the most important forest management responsibilities. Setting the amount of annual timber harvest, is an essential long term planning responsibility to ensure that there will be timber left to harvest over the long term. While the work the Forest Service did to determine the amount of annual harvest of large sub regional Timber Supply Areas (TSA's) was technically competent in a statistical sense, there were problems with the nature of the harvest on the ground. The amount or volume of timber harvested or harvest control is a very important element in sustainability. You also need to ensure that the harvest is not always restricted to the best pickings or you will face a future time of harvesting lower value timber that may be more expensive to harvest, handle, transport and manufacture. While Forest Service staff would talk about harvesting the timber profile, forest companies could select the areas to be harvested and were taking the best first. The recent mountain pine beetle epidemic was aided and abetted by this process. Lodge pole pine was a less attractive species to harvest, so huge areas were left to get old and susceptible to beetle attack. Losses to this way of doing things are in the tens of billions of dollars, hardly good economics.

After WWII, rapid conversion of virgin forests into dollars rolled along for about three decades without much question. The first bump in the road was the global environmental awakening of the 1970's. Environmentalists were active in campaigns to save forests in protected areas. Their activities, sometimes called the "war in the woods" resulted in an increase in the area of Parks or protected areas to the present level of 14 million hectares. These environmental evangelists have never advanced their understanding of forests beyond saving them in protected areas. Most environmentalists would be surprised to learn that protecting forests in Parks is a recognized component of sustainable forest management. Much can be done to protect the environment and biodiversity in timber producing forests through good forest management and institutions. Further, timber producing landscapes in British Columbia, contain a greater area of land that is likely to remain in virgin natural condition, than contained in Parks. Although BC has protected more area in Parks, BC Parks has suffered cutbacks in budget and capacity. Environmental organisations have not expanded their horizons or engaged the public in the wider long term issues of forest stewardship in Parks and timber producing forests.

In the 1980,s timber supplies in USA had recovered from previous exploitation, so US lumber producers were after increased market share. The non market administrative pricing of timber supplies allocated to forest corporations in BC became vulnerable to claims of subsidy. British Columbia wood exports remain subject to discriminatory export tariffs and taxes.

The last two decades has seen a First Nation's land claim process that affects public forests. This much lauded process seems to have degenerated into First Nations getting the run around from both the Provincial and Federal Governments. It is a complex issue and the land claims process also is also viewed as a means of redress or reparations for past and probably ongoing social and economic injustice. The process seems to be providing more poor treatment. While some First Nation's individuals did gain employment in the forest sector, aboriginal people were under represented in the forest sector work force. If land claims are resolved, it seems that the forest areas granted may not be sufficient to establish enterprises that provide sufficient employment. Aboriginal people did not have a European concept of individual land ownership, and the retention of most of BC's forest in public forests means that they retain ownership along with other residents. Is alienating public forest land and placing it into private First Nation's ownership a solution? Retaining the land in public ownership under new institutions that ensure sustainable forest stewardship and opportunities for sustained First Nation's employment is probably a better solution.

The BC Government is poised to give forest corporations increased private interest in public forests through long term areas based leases of public forests for timber production. Communities and First Nation's will be offered relatively small areas of forests as appeasement for the next step toward enclosure of our public forests into the private interest. Is this what BC residents want? Since most of us live in urban areas, are we even interested?

For a long term solution read "Democratic areas based forest trusts" found in the sidebar.