BC’s forest industry, with a little help from its dependents in mainstream media, has become expert at warping public perception of the industry.
Teal Cedar Products Ltd’s cedar shake and shingle mill beside the Fraser River in Surrey. About half of the cedar logs that go through the mill end up in the pile on the right.
TEAL CEDAR PRODUCTS LTD, the company in the news over its logging of old-growth forests on southern Vancouver Island, knows something that it doesn’t want you to know: About one-half of the ancient forest Teal cuts in TFL 46, trucks to its log sort at Duke Point, and then booms across the Salish Sea and up the Fraser River to its mill in Surrey, spends time as a pile of sawdust and wood chips on its way to a pulp mill or a bag of garden mulch or some other low value product. About half.
According to data published by the BC ministry of forests, approximately 52 percent of the logs removed from BC forests become wood chips or sawdust. Teal’s mill is no different. The image above shows its shake and shingle mill on the Fraser River. That big pile of sawdust on the right? That’s the destination of approximately half of the old-growth cedar logs it removed from TFL 46 near Port Renfrew.
Like the wood waste from any other mill in BC, the sawdust and wood chips are then transported to a pulp mill and turned into short-lived products like newsprint, toilet paper, or garden mulch. But the extent to which the forest is wasted when it’s logged is actually much worse than this, whether it’s old growth or second growth.
What can’t be seen in the mill image is the slash left behind in the clearcuts after logging: The stumps and roots, the non-merchantable tops, the branches, parts of the tree that were broken during felling, the rotten parts of the trees, smaller unmerchantable trees, standing dead snags, and woody debris on the forest floor. Oh, and the understory plants and the underground mycorrhizal network. Approximately one-half of the total biomass of a forest that is killed by logging stays in the clearcut until it burns or decomposes and then passes into the atmosphere. Yes, this would all happen over time, naturally. But logging unnaturally shrinks the time frame within which that occurs, and, in the developing climate emergency, accelerating the process of returning forest carbon to the atmosphere could be suicidal.
Logging slash left after clearcut logging of old-growth forest in the Klanawa River Valley on southern Vancouver Island (Photo by TJ Watt)
The wasted biomass left in the clearcut, along with the piles of sawdust and wood chips at the mill, account for 75 percent of the original biomass that was in an old-growth stand before it was logged. Seventy-five percent.
In BC, of the remaining 25 percent that gets turned into lumber, plywood, veneer, panels, shakes, shingles and poles, about 80 percent of that is exported, mostly to the USA, China and Japan. That means that only about 5 percent of the total forest biomass that is killed in BC each year by logging is actually used here as a product that could store carbon for more than a couple of years. Five percent. The other 95 percent is the forest industry’s big, dirty secret.
This matters because there is a climate emergency. Killing forests means killing the most effective way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and safely store it for hundreds of years. Over the past 20 years in BC, mainly as a result of logging, the province’s forests have lost over 90 percent of their annual capacity to sequester atmospheric carbon.
It also matters because killing forests means killing the wildlife that lived in those forests. As a consequence of logging, BC is experiencing an unprecedented decline in wildlife populations. The greatest cause of biodiversity collapse is loss of habitat.
And it also matters because British Columbians are subsidizing this colossal forest-wasting exercise: By paying for the forest management necessary for the gargantuan scale of logging involved to meet export market demand, by subsidizing the industry’s electrical energy usage, and by failing to tax the immense carbon emissions and loss of carbon sequestration capacity caused by the forest industry.
As awareness of these facts grows, both the ministry of forests and industry are desperately trying to create counter arguments about the damage the industry is doing to climate stability and wildlife.
On the government side, provincial and federal forest mandarins are scrambling to promote initiatives that make it appear they are on the verge of mitigating the harms to climate and biodiversity. “Innovations” like “collecting logging residue” to make “bioenergy” and “mass timber construction” to store carbon are being promoted as climate friendly reasons why forest conservation is unnecessary. These initiatives—eviscerated by serious scientists—only address the symptoms, not the disease itself, which is too much logging. Worse, these unproven initiatives likely will have no impact at actually reducing the harm, and instead provide only the appearance of “We’ve got this.”
Individual forest product companies, too, are finding their own creative ways to maneuver their businesses through the climate and biodiversity minefields. This brings us back to Teal Cedar Products Ltd, and its claims about guitars.
In BC Supreme Court, Teal emphasized its role in guitar making
Recall that in its February 2021 application to the BC Supreme Court for an injunction against logging road blockades in TFL 46, Teal emphasized the impact the blockades had on its “Teal Tonewood Division.” The company’s injunction contains the term “shake and shingle mill” only once, with no description of the extent of that business at all. Yet for its “Tonewood Division,” Teal included this long description:
“Teal Cedar will suffer particular damage to its Tonewood division, which supplies book-matched pairs of timber used to manufacture custom-made guitars.
“Only the highest quality all-blonde, straight-grain Western Red Cedar meets Teal Cedar’s standards for this business. This wood is difficult to come by. A disproportionate volume of the Western Red Cedar logs that do meet this standard originate from the Southern Vancouver Island logging area where the Blockades have occurred.
“From September to December 2020, Teal Cedar experienced a decline in production of approximately 25,000 Tonewood units, resulting in lost revenue exceeding $250,000. This was due primarily to a sharp shortage in Western Red Cedar logs available during this period for production. Teal Cedar’s customers have begun to seek out substitute suppliers and lower cost European and Sitka Spruce product alternatives. For these customers, the shift to lower cost, lower quality alternatives would likely be permanent.”
Just based on the difference in the number of words used to describe its cedar products, you might think that most of the cedar Teal takes from TFL 46 is being used to make guitars. “Shake and shingle” got three words; guitars got 146.
Teal’s use of the injunction application to emphasize the tonewood aspect of its business raises some questions about the veracity of the company’s claims.
For one thing, Teal removed 2.5 times the volume of cedar from TFL 46 in 2020 than it did in 2019—when there were no blockades. That increase in volume doesn’t support Teal’s claim of a “sharp shortage.” Moreover, the log market value of the cedar Teal did remove from TFL 46 in 2020 was about $9.7 million, and this is a much lower value than that of the wood products made from those logs. Why would “lost revenue exceeding $250,000” need to be highlighted by Teal?
Secondly, according to Teal-Jones’ videos about the company, its Tonewood Division is located in Lumby, BC. Teal has a shake and shingle mill in Revelstoke, 175 kilometres distant from Lumby by highway, that also uses old-growth cedar cut from that area. The Revelstoke area is known for being able to produce excellent guitar tonewood, both from red cedar and Sitka spruce. From Port Renfrew to Lumby is 600 kilometres by road and a log boom across the Salish Sea. Why wouldn’t Teal have simply made up the difference from its nearby Revelstoke operation instead of losing all those valuable tonewood clients?
But these are mere side issues relating to the believability of Teal’s claims. The main question that needs examination is this: Are guitar tonewoods actually a big part of Teal’s Vancouver Island logging and Surrey milling business, or is that just corporate greenwashing of the larger harms the company is doing? Several reporters covering the old-growth logging blockades emphasized the guitars.
Mainstream media: Teal-Jones is “world's largest maker of acoustic guitar heads”
On April 9, a week after Teal was granted an injunction, the company’s efforts to rebrand itself as a guitar maker hit mainstream media. Darren Kloster, a reporter for Victoria’s Times Colonist, interviewed Teal spokesperson Jack Gardner. Kloster wrote, “Gardner said ‘every stick harvested’ is processed at its mills in BC, including a facility in Lumby that cuts cedar blocks for guitars. Teal-Jones, he said, is the world’s largest maker of guitar tops and ships cut pieces to guitar makers in Canada and around the world.”
Over the following weeks, as public support for the blockades grew and the RCMP began to arrest forest defenders, media coverage of the conflict ballooned and the “world’s largest maker of guitar tops” claim metastasized.
Writing about the blockades in the May 27 Globe and Mail, Justine Hunter reported, “The Teal Jones Group is the largest privately owned timber harvesting and primary lumber-product manufacturing company in British Columbia. The family owned company is the world’s largest maker of acoustic guitar heads, and it also produces dimensional lumber for construction, log home timbers and cedar shingles.”
On June 6, reporting for Reuters, Nia Williams wrote: “Teal Jones is a private company based in Surrey, near Vancouver. The company, the world’s largest maker of cedar guitar heads, says although the Fairy Creek watershed is almost 1,200 hectares, only about 200 hectares are available for harvest.”
The role the guitar factor played in how reporters thought about what was important was clearly evident in stories written by former Vancouver Sun reporter Rob Shaw. Now a reporter for Victoria’s CHEK TV, Shaw produced at least two stories that included Teal’s guitar parts business. For the Daily Hive, he wrote: “The company’s Tonewood division is one of the world’s largest suppliers of acoustic guitar heads and plans to use some old growth trees—cedar and spruce have the best grain—to make guitar parts and other instruments.”
On The Orca website, Shaw reported that “Teal-Jones, and its Tonewood Division, is the world’s largest maker of acoustic guitar heads.”
Based on that “world’s largest maker” status, Shaw calculated that “There’s likely several protesters at Fairy Creek right now, as well as other environmental activists, holding acoustic guitars made from the very trees they demand not to be felled.”
Shaw went on to observe, “It’s easy for the forestry community to paint them [the protesters] as hypocrites—though in reality, we are all guilty of hypocrisy when it comes to decrying the harm caused to the environment, and then consuming the very products that worsen those harms.”
Shaw didn’t quote anyone from the forestry community who had accused guitar-playing old-growth protesters of being hypocrites; perhaps he sniffed out the hypocrisy all on his own.
From Shaw’s stories, it’s clear that Teal’s guitar claims had influenced how he viewed the company, the logging, the protests and the protesters.
The four reporters didn’t all agree on which part of an acoustic guitar Teal was producing, but they all agreed that it was either the “largest maker,” or “one of the largest makers” of that part in the world.
According to Teal’s Youtube video, it produces approximately 2-foot-long, quarter-inch thick, quarter-sawn planks of red cedar and Sitka spruce—known as tonewood—that can be used for the front panel of a guitar body, the surface that has the sound hole in it. Tonewood is still a rough sawmill product though, not what could properly be called a “valued-added” product, though Teal does. To make tonewood, Teal takes a cedar shake bolt and runs it through a bandsaw instead of a hydraulic splitter. If Teal turned the boards produced into guitars—they don’t—that would be “value-added.”
FOCUS contacted Kloster, Hunter and Shaw and asked how they had confirmed Teal’s “world’s largest” claim. All responded, but none provided any evidence that supported the “largest maker” claim. It appears that Gardner’s claims to Kloster, along with information included in one of the company’s Youtube videos, was all that it took for the company’s logging of old-growth forest on Vancouver Island to be characterized by mainstream media reporters as an essential part of the global manufacture of acoustic guitars.
There were significant gaps in their reporting: None mentioned that the manufacture of red cedar shakes requires felling the same iconic, ancient red cedar trees that Teal claims to use to make guitar parts. None of the reporters mentioned that Teal’s shake and shingle mill in Surrey is arguably the largest manufacturer of red cedar shakes and shingles in BC—and possibly the world.
I can only say “arguably” because the privately-owned company has not provided a public account of its Surrey shake and shingle mill’s output for at least 10 years, if ever. The ministry of forests conducts a voluntary “Major Mill Survey” each year that publishes the estimated annual output of every kind of mill in BC. Almost every large mill participates, but not Teal-Jones’ shake and shingle mill in Surrey.
What is the mill’s output? Its physical size is evidently much larger than that of the largest shake and shingle producer that does participate in the ministry’s mill survey. A video about Teal’s shake and shingle mill states there are 23 resaw machines—the company produces 24-inch tapersawn shakes—with matching packing and banding facilities below the resaw machines.
Some of the 23 machines at Teal-Jones’ Surrey shake and shingle mill that produce tapersawn shakes (Photo via Youtube)
Compare that with the company’s video description of its funky “Tonewood Division” facility, which it says is located in Lumby. The video shows a few glimpses of a rustic building containing cedar or spruce blocks, and a bandsaw leisurely cutting off a thin plank destined for a guitar. It’s clearly a small, niche operation.
Teal-Jones’ Tonewood Division manufacturing facility, identified in a Youtube video as being in Lumby, BC
But given the prominence of the guitar business in its application for an injunction, it appears Teal doesn’t want the public to think of the company as a roofing producer. Instead, it would like to be seen as a manufacturer of acoustic guitar parts. Why?
Turning old-growth forests into roofing is like dynamiting the Sistine Chapel
Ask yourself: would you feel better about Teal chainsawing down a majestic 1000-year-old Western red cedar if you were told it was felled to (1) make musical instruments, or (2) make roofing?
If cedar shakes are installed properly on a steep roof that’s well maintained, the shakes will last for about 30 years. The roofing then needs replacing. This is the worst possible use of old-growth cedar. I should know. I’ve installed a number of shake roofs on houses I’ve built, and they have all been replaced in that time frame.
Cedar shingles on a roof will have an even shorter lifetime. As decorative siding, shingles are likely to last a little longer, but not as long as the trees from which they came would have lived if they were left standing.
Teal understands that it’s easier to sell old-growth forest destruction during a climate emergency and in the midst of biodiversity collapse if the public thinks it’s being done to make acoustic guitars than if it’s done to produce a roofing product or decorative shingles.
FOCUS did a thorough internet search for Teal’s guitar-parts making business in Lumby—and throughout BC—but we couldn’t find it. We did an extensive search of satellite imagery for mills in the Lumby area. Mills of any size, from small to large, stick out like a sore thumb—there’s always a big pile of wood waste nearby. Yet the Lumby guitar-part-making mill could not be found. We searched through organizations of luthiers (guitar makers) around the world and could find no mention of Teal’s guitar parts business, even though it “is the world’s largest maker of acoustic guitar heads,” according to the reporters. On the other hand, Acoustic Woods, the Port Alberni based tonewood supplier, could easily be found in all of these searches.
We requested information about “Teal Tonewood Division” from Teal—and the lawyer who had prepared its injunction application—several times—but they provided no response.
Teal seems to have found a way to draw attention away from its core business and direct it toward a more palatable use of old-growth forests. Mainstream media seem more than willing to amplify that mischaracterization of the company’s activities.
You can understand Teal’s dilemma: It has a large mill equipped to make a product that seemed like a good idea in the early 1900s. But it’s early in the twenty-first century, BC is down to its last few hundred thousand hectares of forests containing large, ancient trees, and there’s a climate emergency and a biodiversity collapse. Using those rare remaining stands for short-lived roofing products or decorative siding could easily be seen by the public as reprehensible, like dynamiting the Sistine Chapel to make ballast. But using ancient forests for acoustic guitars that can then make beautiful music that feeds the human soul? How could you be against that?
Why would mainstream media be so willing to pussy-foot around the demolition? Let’s go back to that big pile of sawdust beside Teal-Jones’ mill. That mound of ground-up fibre is an inevitable by-product of milling, and it is no different here than anywhere else on Earth. What that by-product has mainly been used for in the past was the production of newsprint, the cheap medium upon which Canada’s mainstream print media—like the Times Colonist, the Vancouver Sun, and the Globe and Mail—depend on for their continued business health. Deep down, newspapers don’t want to see those sawdust piles disappear. If they vanished, or became scarce, cheap paper—the oxygen of the newspaper business—would disappear. Given that fact, for newspaper reporters to say anything seriously critical about the forest industry would be, well, hypocritical.
David Broadland is the former publisher of FOCUS, a print magazine whose financial stability depended heavily on paper prices hardly ever rising. He and Leslie Campbell were happy to begin the process of decarbonizing the publication in 2016 and have now completed that project.