Logging for a loss

Lawrence Solomon
The National Post
February 24, 2001

Logging a majestic stand of hemlock and balsam in British Columbia’s coastal rainforest costs logging companies $100 a cubic metre. Selling the hemlock gets them an average of $60 a cubic metre, the balsam gets them less. “We lose $40 on every cubic metre of hemlock that we bring to the sawmill,” explains Steve Crombie of Interfor, one of B.C.’s large product exporters.

Other old-growth species – when they don’t suffer from rot or other commercial defects, as old-growth often does – fetch more. Highly prized cedar is worth $150 a cubic metre, fir $120. But these two species represent the lesser part of B.C.’s coastal forests, and the lesser part of B.C.’s exports. Hemlock and balsam, in contrast, account for about 60% of B.C.’s entire coastal timberlands, and of B.C.’s exports. Most of B.C.’s magnificent rainforest, in other words, is being cut and exported at a loss.

Why does Interfor cut at a loss? It’s the law, explains Mr. Crombie, the company’s director of public relations. “You can’t not harvest the species” under the rules the government lays down. “When you have a Tree Farm Licence, you’re required to bring out a certain volume – it’s measured volume, not in value.” If Interfor displeased the government by only logging profitable stands, the government would slap it with penalties.

But don’t think for a moment that Interfor and the B.C. forestry giants would prefer to operate under a free market in which they could cut the few valuable trees and leave the rest behind. These corporations see themselves as allies of government in championing the public interest, and the public interest demands the trees come down – whatever the cost – to keep sawmills humming and forest workers employed.

“You can’t just pick and choose” without thought to the greater good, Mr. Crombie states adamantly. Without government regulations to force logging the forest industry would shrink because “corporations would just target the best stuff and leave the rest.” What’s needed, the industry believes, is a compensation scheme that allows forestry companies a fair rate of return on the good they do in harvesting uneconomic stands.

About the role of government, Mr. Crombie is correct. For decades, governments across Canada have understood that large logging harvests – the kind that keeps logging communities employed and their local politicians re-elected to office – would not occur without government intervention. Those least willing to log are individual woodlot owners, who often refuse to log, even at a profit. These private owners tend to like their forests undisturbed – they might be birdwatchers or hunters and fishermen, or they might irrationally like the idea of owning woodland that they might visit but once or twice a year. To change these recalcitrants’ lethargic values, and to encourage those trees to earn their keep, governments tout the virtue of the “working forest” to promote growth in forest jobs. Because slogans alone won’t persuade Canadians to change their values, governments corrupt their citizens with sweeteners if they’ll cut, and penalties – B.C.’s are among the most onerous – if they won’t.

Yet private landowners – whose more southerly trees tend to be far more valuable than government trees – for the most part have refused to be corrupted, leaving Canada’s privately held forest land largely intact. Even multinational forest companies – when the government relaxes its grip – have sold off forest holdings to those who’ll pay the biggest buck: cottage land or resort developers, private wilderness camps, sportsmen’s clubs, retirees who crave a forested lot with an ocean view, preservationist charities that accumulate land and just sit on it, and summer camps for children, among them. In the hands of such new owners, small areas might be cleared for a building here and there, and a few, high-value logs might selectively be harvested, but the trees are worth far more standing than as pulp. To add to the governments’ woes, they often face pressure to sell crown land to marinas and other providers of recreational services who have not the slightest intention of logging.

With the danger that trees might fall into private hands, with pressure from environmentalists to put more land in protected reserves, and with U.S. trade officials fiercely pressing for an end to subsidized logging, Canada’s forest industry could collapse, threatening the existence of forest industry towns and making loggers – who pull down some of country’s highest paid union jobs – an endangered species. To meet the threat that the vast majority of B.C.’s forests might be preserved for all time, British Columbia’s NDP government last week took decisive action. It created the logging reserve.

“Government recently achieved an environmental milestone by designating more than 12% of our land base for parks and protected wilderness areas announced B.C. Forests Minister Gordon Wilson. “It’s time to reserve land for logging in much the same way.”

British Columbia, total area 95 million hectares, contains 60 million hectares of forest land. Sixteen million hectares – including parks and other protected areas – are considered unsuitable or unavailable for commercial logging, leaving 44 million hectares of public and private land that the province deems working forest. All 44 million hectares, under the government’s plan, becomes reserved “to protect the working forest from ad hoc conversion to non-forest use.

“What this reality is, is a balancing piece to the protected-area strategy which we have now completed,” Mr. Wilson explained. “It’s important for us in order to have proper land-use planning, to have both protected areas defined.” Mr. Wilson’s working forests – defined as “lands where timber management and harvesting is a priority use” – would enjoy the same type of protections as provincial parks do. The legislation – a plum long desired by the Coast Forest and Lumber Association, an industry lobby – ensures that high-value land uses will not supplant the forest as feedstock for mills.

Many Canadians instinctively distrust Canadian corporations, and in the forest industry’s case they are fully justified. This industry has plundered the Canadian economy and environment for decades. But these Canadians’ instincts fail them when they put their trust in government – no force in Canada has been more rapacious of forests than our governments, who have owned 90% of the forested land, and reduced much of it to sawdust.

Throughout much of our history, our forests have had but one consistent defender: the private citizen. Individuals value forest land, not as an indiscriminate commodity, but for its unique attributes. In doing so, they bid up the land’s value, putting most of it beyond the reach of low-value commodity businesses such as logging. It takes a government, working on behalf of industry, to knock the price down again.

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One thought on “Logging for a loss

  1. Pingback: Stopping subsidized lumber exports | Environment Probe

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