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.

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