Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Sustainable Logging?

Since my holidays I've been  pondering logging, both of the clear-cutting and helicopter variety, because these activities were present in the remote areas around Bella Coola. The clear-cutting stopped in the late 80's, and now all that goes on is helicopter logging: small patches are clear-cut, and a few high-value logs are airlifted out.

Years ago, I visited Wildwood, the 70-acre woodlot owned and managed by Merv Wilkinson for many years, and now owned by The Land Conservancy (TLC) and run by the Ecoforestry Institute. The woodlot is just outside of Nanaimo, in an area of spawling residential acreages, near where my sister lives, so that's how I heard about it. When I visited, Merv was still alive (he passed away at 97 last year) and his woodlot had just been taken over by TLC. They gave tours and talking to Merv was part of that.

There's a book written about the woodlot by Merv, which is an interesting read. Merv bought the lot in the late 30's and started logging it "by hand", starting with European forest-management principles and modifying them over the years to be more conservative (in the sense of "conserving"). The basic idea is single-tree selective logging. All logs were hauled out by horse and milled on site with a small portable sawmill (not his). Merv made money off of his woodlot, and the wood he harvested was apparently of better quality than the local clearcut stuff. The lot has more and better-quality trees on it now than when he started.

This is what the Ecoforestry folks will tell you, and what is in his book. Merv became a hero to the sustainable logging community and was awarded the Order of BC as well as the Order of Canada. There's no doubt that he pioneered the practise of, and education in, less-destructive forestry techniques, against the flood of clear-cut logging going on at the time.

But, what isn't emphasized is that Merv never made a full-time living off of his woodlot. It was not large enough to support him and his family fully. Of course, how much exactly a "living" is, is a bit vague, but Merv lived on his land in a cabin he built, and did not by any stretch have an extravagant lifestyle. No flat-screen TV or Disneyland holidays, in other words.

In order to really make a living from forestry, you need a bigger woodlot. There is probably a limit to how big your lot can be before you need to start making use of machinery for the hauling, which then gets you into a different economic model: more cash flow to finance your equipment...In fact, it's not a given that at today's land and commodity prices, you could make such a private woodlot work: how much income would it need to generate for you to be able to pay the mortgage? (That is, if you can even find such a woodlot to purchase.)

In fact, unless you buy your woodlot, you'll have to lease land from the Crown, like the logging companies do. Then you'll need to adhere to the Forest and Range Practises Act, which includes the Forest Practises Code. I'm pretty sure you can't then manage your woodlot like Merv did. I suspect his techniques are only available to privately owned woodlots. Moving wholesale to a small woodlot forestry industry would require some pretty major shifts in legislation, here in BC. Even community forests here find themselves basically forced into clear-cutting. Probably such a shift can only happen if the big forestry companies pull out almost entirely. They have a lot of lobbying power (since they employ a lot of people and have a lot of capital invested) - although this is changing...

If you have ever been to Europe, their forests are highly managed and "sustainable" in some sense, anyways. Mostly, the model is of "community forests", with community-hired "civil servants" doing the management / logging. They do not clear-cut. That said, the French, German and Swiss forests I've seen are basically manicured parks with some non-threatening wildlife running around in them. Beautiful, but riddled with roads. Not a whole lot of wilderness left. I'm pretty sure this is not what the good people at the Ecoforestry Institute are aiming for.

[a managed European deciduous forest ]

I find it hard to come up with an example, a model or vision, of what "sustainable logging" would look like here in BC. These are some of the things I'm trying to consider while trying to imagine how "family owned woodlot forestry" would work:

  • How many families could be supported here in BC on Merv's forestry practises?
  • Where would they live? What areas of BC would be "sold off" to accomodate such an industry?
  • How would standards be enforced?
  • How would they ship their product to market? Would they have access to roads? Modern telecommunications infrastructure?
  • What would healthcare and education systems for them look like? 
  • How would First Nations land claims issues and economic development fit in with this?
It's pretty clear that BC would be a completely different place if this was how forestry was practised. While I'm no fan of clear-cut logging, I think it's also unrealistic to expect a large-scale return to small woodlots, for the same reasons that the small, diverse, family farm isn't a thriving business model anymore, either...the biggest reason being: it's hard and risky physical work, and the pay is crap. Given the available alternatives people leave in droves.

And then just as I was pondering these issues, this sad and ironic epilogue came to my attention...

I heard on the news the other day that the Land Conservancy is bankrupt. Sounds like they were leveraging themselves blue in order to get more land protected...I fear at least some assets will now have to be sold to get their debts under control. This is pretty sad, since TLC has been the recipient of many bequests of land by people wanting to preserve their properties from development "forever". Who knows if Wildwood will be part of the sale?

Not only this, but Merv's woodlot has apparently been in trouble for a while...before he died, Merv put together a pretty damning "report card" of how the Ecoforestry folks were running the place. In a nutshell, apparently they weren't. They had stopped logging altogether - there have been less than a dozen trees cut on the property since 1999 when the woodlot was turned over to TLC. In fact, their website says the following (emphasis mine):

"The initial concept was an economic one - to harvest only the annual growth rate, but over time ecological criteria were added to the decision making process, so that now the goal is to manage for ecological function first and foremost and see how humans can fit in without diminishing the ecological functioning of the forest."

Basically they've turned it into a park. So in fact, it is not a woodlot anymore, and can't be used as a demonstration of sustainable forestry.

1 comment:

  1. Super interesting. I grew up in Nanaimo, in an area called Wellington. We had a woodlot. It was jointly owned by a few families, and I have very clear memories of my dad putting the trailer on the tractor and chugging down the road. We'd get there and he'd fall a tree or two, something three, and then buck it up into sections. We'd have to load the trailer (I was really small here, less than 8) and then we'd chug back up the road to our house and my dad would split it all and it was what would heat our house. I asked my mom about this because I don't know the details - the woodlot was shared and each family just took the trees you needed, and there were often cooperative work days. Mom said this was super common, that families would get together and buy a small lot and slowly log it for their own fuel uses. I don't know how big it was, to 8 year old me it seemed HUGE. Eventually, some developer bought the land and built a whole new subdivision, and by then my parents had switched to an oil furnace.

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