Move over, David Suzuki. Thanks to Donald Trump’s newly imposed tariffs on our exports of softwood lumber to the U.S., the greatest protector of Canada’s environment is now Donald Trump.
Cold, hard numbers can’t measure an environment’s value, but they can demonstrate the extent to which an environment can be cheapened by its owner, when its owner is a government whose currency is votes and whose planning horizon extends no farther than the next election.
British Columbia, Canada’s biggest lumber exporter by far, sells most of its trees to a handful of major logging companies, based on a bureaucratic formula that lets the companies obtain wood, much of it from old-growth forest, for as little as 25 cents per cubic metre. Picture a telephone pole and you’re picturing one cubic metre of wood. Picture a long logging truck piled high with logs and you’re looking at 35 to 40 cubic metres of wood, or $9 to $10 worth of wood.
Last year, B.C. fetched that 25-cent rate on one-third of its total harvest of 21.2-million cubic metres. In exchange for that levelling of provincial forest, the B.C. treasury obtained a paltry $5.3 million. Last year was no exception — this shameful sell-off has been going on for decades, harming the provincial economy and its environment.
Why would politicians sell so much forest for such a pittance? Political contributions from the forestry industry explain part of the motivation, but rural jobs explain most of it. Many rural communities depend overwhelmingly on the local sawmill or pulp and paper plant. Because a political party can win or lose a rural riding on the fate of a single plant, politicians are only too willing to subsidize it to maintain the loyalty of the locals that depend on it.
This winning short-term strategy for politicians has been a long-term loser for just about everyone else. Over the last decade, B.C.’s forest industry has lost more than 22,000 jobs; over the last two decades, close to 100 mills have gone under. More mills and more jobs are slated to disappear as more regions get logged out and their communities get rubbed out.
The destruction need not have occurred and need not continue. B.C.’s forests don’t benefit from having uncaring politicians and bureaucrats in remote provincial capitals as proxy owners; they need caring, hands-on owners who will be responsible stewards of the land, and see it for its many complex uses. They need, in short, private owners such as the Schleifenbaums, owners of the 40,000-hectare Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve, one of the largest private landholdings in Ontario.
When this family first acquired the land in 1962, it was a logged-over mess. Today under entrepreneurial and nurturing ownership, it is thriving, the largest employer in its county. Haliburton runs a sawmill, fed by six crews of loggers. It also provides tours of its sawmills. It also runs a camping operation, and rents out cabins, and maintains a 300-kilometre hiking trail, which in winter sees its 150 Siberian huskies pulling dogsledding visitors. Its wood shop produces paddles, salad bowls and other wood products that it sells at two retail shops it owns in neighbouring towns. It caters to astronomers who come for its observatory and its night sky, free of light pollution; to fishermen who come for its 50 lakes, to snowmobilers who come for its wooded trails, to mountain bikers and others who now partake of what was once a wasteland.
The B.C. government could hardly have done worse for its economy and environment than through its management of its forests. It could hardly do better than to sell off its forest holdings to people with an entrepreneurial bent, like the Schleifenbaums, whose love of the forest lets them see its potential. Once our forests are in private hands that optimize their value, rather than cheapen it, the U.S. forest interests whom Trump is now protecting would likely end their lobby — over the last 30 years, the privately owned forests of Nova Scotia have been exempted from the softwood lumber disputes, and although the Trump administration has temporarily slapped Nova Scotia’s woodlots with tariffs, the U.S. lumber lobby, siding with Nova Scotia, has recommended their removal.
Trump is only an inadvertent environmentalist. He’s trying to protect U.S. forest workers, not Canada’s forests. But he’s doing us a favour by highlighting our provincial governments’ perverse policies towards our own resources, and by demanding what is, after all, a thoroughly reasonable request — that we stop subsidizing the removal of our forests. If we comply by selling our forest lands, rather than turning them into fields of stumps, our forests and those whose livelihoods depend on them will bless Trump for it.
Lawrence Solomon is policy director of Toronto-based Environment Probe.