NEWS ANALYSIS: Residents of dozens of British Columbia forest communities are on edge. Will the province's most renewable industry be allowed to continue after the release of a new provincial study? Stewart Muir looks at the facts.
While there's no telling what the Gorley-Merkel report on old growth forestry management will say when it is released in the near future, there's little doubt that community stability will be on the agenda.
Although the popular image of forestry and forest products is of something that takes place mostly in rural areas, Metro Vancouver is also a forest community with sawmills and custom cutters who supply value-added products that are reliant on the tight grain, knot-free lengths and other special qualities of coastal logs in particular. (That's not even including the extensive goods and services supply chain stretching from the glass towers of downtown to secondary manufacturing, technical support and logistics throughout the region.)
In fact, these jobs are already at risk even without attempts by pressure groups to shutter more forest communities. Caught in the crossfire of dramatic change will be the province's pulp industry, which has no alternative fibre supply without old growth logging. Already vulnerable rural communities will be especially affected if this happens, says the pulp and paper sector.
On BC’s coast, for instance, the Annual Allowable Cut fell by 8.5 million cubic meters over the past two decades as significant amounts of land were set aside for non-timber values. The result is an industry that has a surprisingly small footprint – less than 1% of the working forest land base is harvested every year. On Vancouver Island specifically, according to Council of Forest Industries numbers, on an annual basis less than 2% of what is considered harvestable "old growth" is logged annually.
Today on the coast, 70% of the coastal public forest land base is conserved. The forest community's perspective (see Port McNeill Mayor Gaby Wickstrom's recent commentary) is that the remaining 30% of the forest should continue to be available for industrial access that in turn supports communities, families and livelihoods. With such little forested area available for harvesting, even small changes in direction would have a significant impact.
"Sadly, I’m beginning to believe that the only number that will satisfy environmentalists is 100 per cent protection of every tree," wrote Mayor Wickstrom. "That isn’t a balanced approach."
For those getting their information about BC old growth logging only from social media, this viewpoint may come across as confusing, because in the heated space of Facebook it's all about stereotypes of rapacious loggers and imminent ecological catastrophe.
In recent months, pressure groups campaigning under the old growth banner got together to commission a study now known as the Veridian Report. The intention of this effort was evidently to steer public discourse by pre-empting the Gorley-Merkel report that was commissioned by the province and tabled earlier this year (but not made public yet) with a particular narrative of events.
The Veridian Report makes the claim that “only a tiny proportion of BC’s remaining old forest (3%) supports large trees” that “match most people’s vision of old growth”. The authors, who do not show up in the BC professional foresters' registry, have used what is termed a "productivity class" analysis of these trees to conclude that “sites with the potential to grow very large trees cover less than 3% of the province. Old forests on these sites have dwindled considerably due to intense harvest."
A common reaction to the Veridian Report among forest professionals is to point out that old growth is not just about large trees; there's much more to it. The report misses the point that just a small part of coastal BC's forests are even accessible to forestry, resulting in a confusing impression about what is actually at stake. In a way this is not surprising: It seems like no sooner did the ink dry on the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement than campaigners retooled to escalate once again, and so it is we are hearing rumblings about a renewed war in the woods if demands are not met.
In all this, it can be hard to locate the calm and rational discourse of scientific forestry, even though it does exist. Significant management improvements have taken place in recent years. This is the untold story of forestry in BC and it is not going unnoticed by policymakers. If there's a bright side it is that if the winner-takes-all approach of anti-forestry groups continues, those tactics will be taken less seriously inside government.
Also worth pointing out is that trees grow back. Years ago, the image of one iconic fir tree on Vancouver Island was made a symbol of anti-forestry campaigns. Big Lonely Doug appeared in The Guardian and journeying out to see the tree became a rite of passage for some. This summer, Resource Works paid a visit to Big Doug and guess what? The forest around him is greening up rather nicely amid thick regrowth of young trees, abundant wildflowers and no sign of the "certain doom" foretold by some:
Commented one recent visitor: "The flora and fauna and baby fir trees are everywhere! The animals are able to forage on endless berries while the ground is renewed with sunshine. The logging roads allow for tourism and hiking and biking. The positives, in my opinion, are endless. We now have a tree in our backyard nicknamed the Not-So-Lonely Dorothy!"
Lean in closer on this issue and most members of the public would be refreshingly surprised by the passion that forest people have for doing right by the areas from which they derive their livelihoods. For example, as attested to by United Steelworkers, BC in 2019 alone protected 54 of the oldest and biggest trees from the University of British Columbia’s Big Tree Registry, plus the surrounding one-hectare grove to act as a buffer zone. Past practices that needed improving have indeed been improved.
Many foresters will point out that a layperson would have difficulty distinguishing between first growth and second, or in some cases even third, growth stands. And then there's the whole question of climate change, with many professionals and forest academics aware that having healthy forests in tomorrow's different conditions will require management actions to be taken today.
Another uneasy fact for promoters of the Veridian Report is the broad recognition that forestry, especially on the coast, represents a clear path to Indigenous ownership through reconciliation processes that keep area-based tenures intact, while including Indigenous values, with functioning forest management systems as the result. Perhaps this is not surprising given the strong ties of the Veridian Group to organizations that make a business out of reducing opportunities for working families.
Pressure groups operating in BC are notorious for trying to suppress economic engagement by some of the poorest First Nations in the country. Maybe there's a gold star from protest funders for preventing First Nations economic aspirations, but guess what: to the rest of us, it's not a good look. The opportunity-curtailment lobby has already been criticized for sticking around only long enough to drive investment away from Indigenous communities in BC and should know better by now.
In relation to Vancouver Island's Fairy Creek blockade now underway stopping foresters, it's also evident that tensions are rising because the visiting protesters having a lovely summer "saving" the forest are doing so at the expense of Indigenous livelihoods. Even one protester has evidenced self doubt, recently posting to Facebook: "If the people of Pacheedhat [First Nation] say that they want to log their land and make the money for their people, who am I to stop them? …. If we stop the Pacheedhat we are the biggest hypocrites, stop the impoverished from getting out of poverty."
Yet the blockade goes on.
Other nations concerned about attempts to limit their opportunities may wish to look to the Huu-ay-aht First Nation on the west coast of Vancouver Island for a model of practice. In reaching an agreement with a forest company to purchase a share of Tree Farm License 44, the nation recently commenced a forestry-based partnership citing five specific benefits:
- Short term revenues will lead to a diverse, healthy and sustainable local economy for members.
- For Huu-ay-aht members who live away from the territory, it gives a reason to move home (jobs, training opportunities).
- Funding to build homes and other infrastructure.
- A fibre cut up front leading to sustainable long-term reduction in logging, while helping economic development in the mid-term.
- Increased revenue streams.
This is what progress looks like; it's exactly the kind of thing that the pressure groups should be supporting, but will not. If they did we might be having a very different public discussion.
While some may assume forestry is a vulnerable industry, increasingly demonized by shock tactics, where the public actually stands on it might come as a surprise. Deep down, the forest industry is so integral to west coast identity that, to this day, a lumberjack (along with a fisherman and Kwakiutl totem) is in the City of Vancouver coat of arms.
Maybe it needs a design refresh, yet the emblem does serve as a reminder of the enduring importance of forestry in the imagination of coastal residents. According to a 2019 Abacus Data poll, 87% of BC residents believe forestry is vital to the provincial economy. Most British Columbians (76%) recognize the BC sector as a global leader from a sustainability standpoint and there is widespread understanding of the many challenges facing the sector, and enthusiasm for a broad range of solutions, with close to 80% saying government should take steps to help promote more investment in the sector for the future.
Resource Works polling in 2017 found that 84% of residents agree it is possible to create green jobs and grow the green economy within BC's natural resource sector. We also polled on the quality of debate and discussion and found areas of concern, and perhaps our findings were reflective of polarizations on an issue like old growth: Only a slight majority of residents found the tone of discussion to be "respectful" while even fewer felt it was cooperative, open or inclusive.
A recurring theme in forest communities is pride – the pride that thousands of British Columbians take in celebrating their forests and standing as a model for the world. Forestry is, after all, the province's most renewable industry. Change itself is not the problem. What's painfully obvious is that socially successful change is the type of change needed, rather than disruptive change dictated by a highly vocal but tiny minority seeking to emphasize a very narrow range of the totality of forest priorities.
Change that works for everyone implies a structured transition in harvesting from old growth to second growth, in the context of a rational management regime that builds on past success. Though a vigorous lobbying effort by single-issue pressure groups is working hard to portray things otherwise, the fact is that provincial forestry officials already steward one of the world's most progressive and successful forest administration systems. (Here's the Service Plan for the current year.)
For those in the BC government looking for the path forward, they'll surely be thinking about maintaining stability and predictability for coastal communities. In the COVID-19 recovery phase, enough people are hurting already. Why pile on now?
And let's not forget that old growth is not even the issue here. Yes, there are legitimate management concerns but we are not facing a crisis. The real problem is ceaseless lobbying by interest groups to extirpate the forestry way of life, which is good for neither the economy nor the environment. (See Old Growth Facts)
Victoria is aware of the various ways that the treasury benefits from the forest economy, and at a time when the Clean BC climate plan is a central organizing principle of government they are also cognizant that wood products store carbon and displace the use of carbon-intensive products like cement and steel. And they are most certainly aware that the world continues to look to British Columbia for building and specialty needs that can only be solved by our unique forest products.
Industry players could do a more thorough job of explaining why the products of old growth forests are unique, special and sought after – as well as renewable. Shingles and shakes; durable fibres for niche paper products including medical supplies; traditional Japanese temples; mass timber structures; log homes; guitars and pianos: just some of the things that rely on responsible access to old growth timber. It's a story that individuals and companies can take upon themselves to tell in social media, rather than relying solely on overtaxed advocacy groups to showcase.
Where will this important issue go from here? Nobody can say for sure. The number one thing for those who value balanced policy and healthy forest communities is to make sure decision makers are seeing you and hearing from you. This is challenging given the deft tactics of an army of anti-forestry communications specialists, but more than ever it's something worth fighting for.
Stewart Muir was an editor at The Vancouver Sun during which time he supported coverage of many aspects of the BC forest industry including the War in the Woods, two rounds of softwood lumber negotiations, several First Nations treaty negotiations, and numerous related themes. Today, he's executive director of Resource Works.
MAIN PHOTO BY ADOBE STOCK