Save the Forests – Sell the Trees

Lawrence Solomon The Wall Street Journal August 25, 1989 Wherever trees grow on private land, forest owners seem to draw the ire of their governments. The government of Ontario has a problem with the way many of its small, private woodlot owners tend their forests: They won’t cut down their trees. The government’s surveys conclude that these smallholders – mostly farmers, professionals and retirees, who control more that 10 million acres of timberland – have what government experts call “a rather indifferent attitude” toward their land. The Ontario government, like governments in wooded areas everywhere, wants to stimulate the exploitation of its forests. But no matter what it tries – and that includes everything from free advice and harvesting services to tax holidays for those joining a government Woodlot Improvement Plan – most woodlot owners refuse to clear-cut their private forests for personal gain, or even to harvest their older timber at the accelerated rate the government favors.

Don’t Blame the Private Sector

Deforestation and the degradation of Ontario’s forest lands make the papers every day in Ontario, but it isn’t the private sector, which owns less than 10% of Ontario’s timber, that is to blame. The deforestation is occurring in the government’s land. While governments act like capitalists, seeing trees as piles of lumber and talking of economic growth, woodlot owners often attend to more spiritual needs: cross country skiing, hunting, birdwatching, or simply the pleasure of owning a piece of wooded land. When they do sell their trees, they tend to avoid clear-cutting and they hold out for prices that are typically two or three times those set by the government for timber. Sweden has more standing forest today than at any time in its past; bogs have been reclaimed and reforestation is mandatory. Unlike Canada, most of the forest land is privately owned, but the government of Sweden, too, has a problem with its small woodlot owners: Sweden’s forest industry has become a major importer of wood because the smallholders don’t want to cut down their trees fast enough. Each year, Sweden grows 100 million cubic meters of wood while harvesting only 70 million cubic meters, leaving a large and growing surplus on private ground. This surplus has also stimulated a national debate over whether to “use the carrot or the whip” to get the woodlot owners to see things the state’s way, says Anders Luden, agricultural attache at the Swedish embassy in Washington. Sweden’s forest industry – the country’s second-largest industry and largest net foreign-exchange earner – is strictly, and from the government’s point of view successfully, managed as an economic resource. Woodlot owners are required to reforest, but they are also required to harvest at least half of their trees within a decade after they mature. Wild, unmanaged standards stands are forbidden, lest the nation’s economy be hurt. But these smallholders still exercise too much control, asserts Mr. Lunden, explaining that the country’s forest management plans are being thwarted by the he smallholders’ growing affluence, which allows them to forgo the income that harvesting would bring. Neighboring Finland also has a huge forest industry and, like Sweden, has more forest than ever before. Five years ago, when the industry was importing 30% of its wood, the Central Association of Forest Industries, a trade association, blamed its woes on the ignorance of many of the country’s 300,000 small woodlot owners, who were refusing to cut their wood out of “their gut reaction … to leave the trees alone, even though the forest environment actually deteriorates without judicious felling.” The industry lamented being “reduced to importing wood, while all the time we were surrounded by trees ready to be felled.” The Finnish government agreed that the small woodlot owners posed a problem: New government and industry measures – augmenting a pre-existing policy that taxed the recalcitrant woodlot owners on the amount they would have earned if they had harvested their trees – have since reduced imports to about 10% of the total wood used. But because increasing numbers of Finnish forest owners live in urban areas, and derive a yield from their woodlots that can’t be measured solely in board feet, industry and government fear a resurgence of smallholder intransigence. In Third World countries, too, the state encourages the plunder of the forest while the traditional owners of the forest – whether individual property owners or more often, small village or tribal communities – vainly attempt to stave off remote governments. In Brazil’s Amazon basin, the government has subsidized the tearing down and burning of a forested area bigger than all of France over this past decade, according to the World Bank. Subsidies of various kinds have deforested other regions of Latin America, several Asian countries, and much of Africa, often after decentralized forest holdings fell under central government control. Federal ownership of almost 200 million acres of forest land has served U.S. forests poorly since World War II, when large-scale commercial harvesting began in the forests taken into the national trust by President Theodore Roosevelt earlier in this century. Much of this silviculture is unprofitable: The logging on more than half the Forests Service’s lands loses about $100 million a year. Much of this loss is incurred in the Rocky Mountains, where logging on unstable soils and difficult slopes boosts both harvesting costs and wilderness damage. Overall, however, the Forest Service turns a profit, primarily due to its highly lucrative but irreplaceable coastal rainforests, which are being logged at record rates to keep Northwest sawmills in business. The Wilderness Society fears that America’s remaining rainforests, most of which are controlled by the Forest Service, could disappear within 15 years. Because governments around the world have such an abysmal record, environmentalists like the World Resources Institute, a U.N.-funded Washington think tank, have come to favor returning state lands to private landowners, and local communities, which, on the whole, have maintained their lands far better. Private owners don’t cut at a loss, they don’t cut for employment reasons, and they manage their forests not as an undifferentiated commodity but as multi-purpose properties with timber being but one asset. Governments have differing reasons for exploiting their forests: In Ontario, where the government sells its trees to logging companies for an average of 85 cents apiece, the purpose is the maintenance of forestry jobs; in Brazil the Amazon was seized from local inhabitants under land re-distribution, then harvested or burned for agricultural production; in Scandinavia the forest is little more than a feedstock for the forest products industry. But whatever the government’s motive, the result is generally the same: Forests meet a premature end, the plant and animal species nutured by overmature trees suffer, timber gluts the marketplace and the price of wood is artificially depressed.

No Incentives

These low prices further discourage proper management of forest lands. Because Ontario loggers don’t own their land, and the government loses money on every tree it harvests, neither has an economic incentive to replant. The government has scant political incentive either. Other than token planting programs to demonstrate a concern for reforestation, the government presides over the deterioration of its holdings, since the chief political benefit of new stands to harvest – credit for forest products jobs – would go to the complete strangers who would be in power 80 years later when the trees mature. Were governments to maintain only true wilderness areas (or to turn these over to conservation organizations), and then return the balance of their forests to private hands, and to the indigenous communities that have successfully managed them since time immemorial, the value of forest lands would climb to recognize their true market value: not only their worth as logpiles put also their recreational value, their development value, their ecological value, and their spiritual value to individuals from so many societies – including our own – around the world.


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