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  • The Big Burn

    Briony Penn

    July 2010

    The combination of a gutted Forest Service, vast areas of not sufficiently restocked forestlands, a quirky loophole in the Kyoto Protocol and a provincial government ideologically driven to sell off public assets has created the perfect opportunity for forest industrialists to burn down the last barriers to privatization of BC’s Crown forests.


    ON AUGUST 20, 1910, a strong wind blew down off the Cascades and whipped hundreds of forest blazes into an inferno that extinguished towns and three million hectares of forests from Washington to Montana. 

    The fires came at a critical time in United States history, when the timber barons, including Weyerhaeuser, were swaying public opinion towards privatizing the country’s public forests. The timber barons had attacked Teddy Roosevelt’s new forest service and its backbone—the forest rangers. The mandate Roosevelt gave the US Forest Service, that “the forest reserves should be set apart forever for the use and benefit of our people as a whole and not sacrificed to the short-sighted greed of a few,” was undermined by claims that Roosevelt’s “green rangers” (led by chief forester Gifford Pinchot) were “google-eyed, bandy-legged dudes, sad-eyed, absent-minded professors and bugologists.” 

    But when the big fires came, Teddy’s forest rangers fought against all odds, saved thousands of lives, and turned the tide of public sentiment against privatization. That led to the strengthening of the US Forest Service and its duty of stewardship. 

    It was called the year of the Big Burn, and out of its ashes came the creation of the British Columbia Forest Service, with a similar mission and structure. 

    A century later, history seems to be in a kind of rhythmic regression in BC. The Forest Service has suffered through a decade of cuts, rendering it unable to do its job. And now the pressure for privatization is coming—from some of the same companies that Roosevelt beat back 100 years ago, like Weyerhaeuser—to meet 21st century demands for cheap, so-called “green” biofuel. And this time round, the champions for keeping our forests public—the latest generation of “green rangers”—are a cohort of influential and well-respected professional foresters from the Forest Service (hardly “absent-minded professors”) led by Anthony Britneff, who recently retired after 39 years as a senior professional in the forest inventory, silviculture and forest health programs of the service. These green rangers are blowing the whistle on an overly industry-friendly government and are poised to put out what threatens to become BC’s own Big Burn. 

    In June, after the latest in a long series of drastic cuts to the Forest Service, Britneff wrote in an op ed in Victoria’s Times Colonist: “This government might think that by rendering the Forest Service dysfunctional and by not investing in the renewal of forestlands, it will eventually rationalize the privatization of provincial forests at fire-sale prices. Enclose the commons? Wake up BC!”

    Besides the emasculating cutbacks, there’s another threat that our green rangers are battling: “tenure reform” that puts “investor security” before the public interest. Some argue it amounts to de facto privatization of public lands. And not just any public lands, but the most abundant valley bottoms that will meet the needs of a growing international demand for biofuel.

    All this is playing out against a backdrop of unprecedented forest-health impacts due to climate change and a growing international call to conserve standing forests as carbon sinks for both mitigation of, and adaptation to, global warming. 


    Massive cuts to the Forest Service

    How deeply is the provincial government cutting the Forest Service? From the 42 district offices that used to exist before the Liberals took office in 2001, only 22 remain. According to the BC Government Employees Union, 1004 employees have been cut since 2002—well over half of these among the district staff that were providing on-the-ground stewardship, forest management, recreation, monitoring, enforcement and compliance services. The ministry has been unable to provide the total number of staff remaining. Insiders speculate that staffing levels are now at record lows, possibly below half the staffing level in 1981 at the bottom of the last major recession in BC. 

    Each district office, with only a handful of field staff, is now responsible for over two million hectares—1000 times more forest per forester than in Sweden. As Roosevelt observed, without a corps of rangers, the land goes unprotected and the laws that set the land aside become meaningless. 

    Since 2002, in addition to staff cuts, most forest management programs have had budgets slashed by over 50 percent. The Forest Stewardship Division has been gutted and, in a sign of the times, its remnants have been absorbed by the new Competitiveness and Innovation Division, which is being led by an assistant deputy minister with no previous experience in forestry matters—a political appointment made directly by the Premier’s office.

    Harry Drage, a green ranger with 32 years in the forest service in the Southern Interior as district manager, provincial recreation officer and certification inspector, observes, “If you take it one step further and look at the staffing in both the ministries that are charged with stewardship—forest and environment—it is down by well over a half of what it was. This creates a lack of public oversight and so the checks and balances are not there anymore. We aren’t protecting the public interest. Is the public comfortable with that?”

    This question was put to the Minister of Forests and Range, Pat Bell, an ex-salvage logger from Prince George. He makes no apologies for the cuts or change in institutional culture. With a 35 percent reduction in harvest levels and dropping government revenues from forestry, he feels a nine percent reduction in staff (referring to only the June round of cuts) is not unreasonable. “The public expects us to manage our fiscal resources, and that is what we are doing.” He points to the Forests for Tomorrow program at $40 million dollars for 2010-2011 as making a significant contribution “by any measure” to reforestation. 

    Anthony Britneff argues that government cannot justify these cuts by the need for fiscal restraint alone because the bulk of the budget cuts were made in 2002, before the recession. He thinks the Forests for Tomorrow program is a tiny drop in a dangerously empty bucket. The amount of public spending on reforestation dropped by 93 percent in 2002 and has only recovered to about 40 percent of what was being budgeted in the ’90s. Meanwhile the amount of land that needs reforestation has increased more than 50-fold. 

    Minister Bell finds these kind of comments “disappointing,” and he maintains that core services to the ministry have been protected and that it’s easy for critics to manipulate numbers. 

    Fact-checking the numbers is challenging. The political decision to strip out a requirement for resource analysis reporting from the Ministry of Forests and Range Act has left the public with limited and confusing facts. After 2002, the ministry’s annual reports shrink to half their previous length, and reporting on forest management activities takes a downward dive. John Betts, head of the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association, observes that the last time there was such a  slim annual report was when the forest rangers were fighting on the Western Front during World War II. 

    Anthony Britneff argues that it is precisely such lack of reporting that prevents even a coherent discussion about the numbers because they aren’t available. “How can you reliably determine timber supply for annual allowable A clearcut on Vancouver Island awaiting replantingcuts if you don’t have a good inventory of what is there and what isn’t?” he asks. He points out that no one knows anymore how much land is not stocked or requires replanting. Britneff estimates that nine million hectares, an area three times the size of Vancouver Island, is not stocked adequately with trees—lands that are outside of licensee responsibilities and therefore the responsibility of the province. 

    The critics are not confined to internal Forest Service “bugologists.” In Williams Lake, forest contractor Jane Perry, past president of the Association of BC Forest Professionals, describes the impact of the recent cutbacks on beetle-affected areas as a huge loss to the much-needed research and expertise required to deal with the immense problem. “Morale in Williams Lake,” she sighs, “couldn’t be lower.”

    John Betts confirms Perry’s portrayal of what’s happening. “People come up to me and say, ‘Boy, you guys must be really busy with all the burned lands and mountain pine beetle.’ Well, actually, we aren’t. We have lost 30 percent of our work and guys are losing their jobs. The lumber market has collapsed so there is no work with the companies. But the point is we should be busier than ever from government because we have a major restoration project that is being neglected.” 


    Change of mission

    Our publicly-owned forests are a provincial icon and the envy of the world. Since the passing of the Forest Act in 1912, a public role in managing our forests has been enshrined in legislation to defend against what was then characterized as “destructive lumbering.” Some might argue that record is blemished, but British Columbians still enjoy a public asset that is unequalled in the world. Native forests with a tremendous diversity of ecosystems, large, still-intact watersheds, and a public freedom to enjoy them are a part of every British Columbian’s identity. This is very different than the experience of Europe, Australia and New Zealand, where native forests have long been converted to plantations of commercial exotic species with a corresponding loss of biodiversity and a limiting of public access.

    Since 1978, the Forest Service’s mission statement has stressed integrated management of the many values we ascribe to our forests, with a commitment “to manage, conserve and protect the province’s forest, range and outdoor recreation resources to ensure their sustainable use for the economic, cultural, physical and spiritual well-being of British Columbians, who hold those same resources in trust for future generations. In respecting and caring for public forest and range lands, the ministry is guided by the ethics of stewardship and public service.”

    Apparently, that’s now all history. 

    A recent internal Ministry of Forests and Range document titled “Response to the Changing Business Environment” lays out the new mission for the ministry as “To provide a superior service to resource stakeholders by supporting competitive business conditions” and gives priority to “Enhancing industry competitiveness” and “Identifying clear outcomes for investors.” An earlier internal memo dated June 9, 2009 from Jim Gowriluk, regional executive director, to his district managers, titled “Re: Advocating for the Forest Industry in the Coast Forest Region,” clearly articulates the new single-function mandate of the Forest Service of “fulfilling our role as advocates for the forest industry.” 

    Protecting the public interest has disappeared. 

    In Smithers, another retired green ranger, forest ecologist Jim Pojar, an internationally-regarded specialist on BC’s ecosystems with 25 years in the Forest Service under his belt, refuses to become a “stooge of industry.” He believes the Liberal government wants to deregulate and effectively privatize our public forests, presenting “hard times” with forest die-off and declining revenue from forestry as a convenient rationale to impose their ideology. “Their vision seems to be to maximize the net present value of forest resources, liquidate as much wood as quickly as possible, manage only for fibre or biomass, sell off forest land to industry and let them deal with the hassle—and maybe make some extra money in real estate. If that is your vision, you don’t need a Forest Service and you don’t need a regulatory and management regime.”

    Del Meidinger was the chief provincial forest ecologist for 30 years. His work with forest classification systems led the world as a management tool and won him the Premier’s Legacy Award. Meidinger points to the axing of the field ecologists who implement this tool. “Why are they de-emphasizing forest stewardship? The forests support so many ecosystem services. Really what is at stake is the protection of the public interest in our forests.” 

    Alan Vyse, adjunct professor of forestry with an Emeritus position in the Forest Service, speaking from his office at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, affirms the concerns of the green rangers: “The facts stand for themselves. There are lots of concerns out there about the change in culture surrounding our public forests and I share them. What we need now with all the challenges of increased pests, fire and other climate change issues is an informed and proactive Forest Service to identify and solve the problems.” 

    The problems are as big as all outdoors. While the political winds were changing at the turn of the millennium, the climatic winds were blowing in profound effects on our forests. Interior forests have experienced huge hits from record wildfires, mountain pine beetle, other large-scale insect infestations like western spruce budworm, and diseases like Dothistroma. The mountain pine beetle alone damaged 15 million hectares, 30 to 60 percent of which staff estimate is not satisfactorily restocked (referred to as NSR lands). Fires burned over a million hectares. A third of a million hectares have been left unstocked from small-scale salvage logging carried out without any obligation to reforest.

    As Vyse asks, “How do you meet these challenges when you reduce your staff and researchers? In the various cuts, including the latest one, they have eliminated 1500 years of accumulated expertise in technical issues. How can you be proactive…?”

    Jim Pojar, in his recent peer-reviewed scientific report, New Climate for Conservation, highlights the challenges facing our forests: “Climate change is already significantly impacting healthy ecosystems in British Columbia and will likely cause more dire consequences for fragmented or degraded ecosystems.” He notes that future projections for forest health and supply of timber require analysis by people who are arms-length to industry. 

    This is not the direction the BC government seems headed.


    Biofuels and tenure reform

    BC’s forest industry is in the process of diversifying from producing softwood pulp and paper and dimensional lumber for the United States housing market to a new range of products—most notably feedstock for the bioenergy sector. The main requirement of the bioenergy industry is secure, long-term tenures on productive lands close to markets, ostensibly to provide assurance to investors that there will be a long-term return on capital. 

    To provide that security, BC’s Forests and Range Minister Pat Bell has called for a new form of tenure called “commercial forest reserves.” Bell maintains there are no plans to privatize Crown forests, but it’s no secret that A hybrid poplar plantation in Oregon that supplies feedstock for production of cellulosic ethanol.the commercial forest reserve concept involves setting aside certain areas, likely the most productive ones, for a single use: intensive silviculture aimed at producing biofuels. Britneff and other green rangers argue that the granting of long term leases that preclude any other uses amounts to at least de facto privatization. The public would lose control of those lands.

    What would Bell’s commercial forest reserves look like? “That is difficult to answer at the moment,” Bell says. “We are in discussion with various stakeholders, industry, ENGOs and First Nations. We envision them as smaller geographical areas where you don’t have complications of species at risk, traditional-use areas, and other values.” That the most productive forestlands are valley bottoms where, in fact, all those “complications” are present is not addressed, nor is the process by which these areas are to be selected.

    Industry is definitely pushing for tenure reform. Last October, headlines in the Vancouver Sun—“Get government out of forests”—accompanied the release of the Woodbridge Report that was presented in a BC Business Council of BC 2020 Summit co-chaired by David Emerson and past finance minister for the Liberal government, Carole Taylor. Written by Peter Woodbridge, the central recommendation is to reform tenure and put investment interests as the top priority. 

    The recommendations of the Woodbridge Report echo exactly those of the Working Roundtable on Forestry, set up by Bell, which published its report the year before. These recommendations are a reflection of the membership of the Roundtable, which, as one of their press releases states, is “not intended to represent forest sector interest groups [or the public] because it would be impossible to have a Working Roundtable of a reasonable size and at the same time represent all forest sector interests.” Of the 15 members, 12 were industry representatives, two were First Nations and there was a lone academic, Derek Thompson. 

    Thompson, also a long-time civil servant and a former deputy minister of Water, Land and Air Protection, was candid: “Tenure reform dominated the discussions, but we couldn’t even get consensus with just industry folk at the table.” He also notes, “There was a great deal of trepidation from government about taking the discourse into the public realm because of the potential for uncontrollable controversy.”

    Fear of “uncontrollable controversy” seems to be at the heart of why the provincial Liberals have steered away from open talk about privatization. For very good reasons, British Columbians aren’t comfortable with changes to Crown lands without a full public debate.

    Liberal MLA for Nechako Lakes, John Rustad, is parliamentary secretary to the provincial Committee on Silviculture. He runs a consulting firm for the forest industry and, like Bell, was also born and raised in Prince George. Rustad acknowledges that “Engaging in all those topics with a broad sector of society would elicit a broad response and is a good idea.” But his more immediate concerns are creating opportunities for the industry’s recovery, and he believes the province needs to move in a new direction: “What I have been asked to do is figure out how to maximize and support the fibre needs of industry today and tomorrow, including for bioenergy and biofuels. I need to find the next regime for silviculture to look at the province differently.”

    And what would that recovery look like on the ground? Rustad sketches out a model that would utilize one-third of the province’s land base as intensive commercial forests. “We are not trying to do something on every square inch of the land base. Even if we have intensive silviculture values, that doesn’t restrict other values. Having said that, you would have it on a subset of the land base and it would happen over a 10- or 20-year period and the rest of the land base would be managed as it is today.”  

    He identifies new intensive silviculture technologies as playing a central role because they increase fibre yield by 20 percent on productive sites, and points to pilot projects, such as the hybrid poplar plantations in the Fraser Valley area by Kruger (Scott Paper), on private lands as the future direction of the forest industry.

    There are other examples of this shift in focus among forestry companies. Woodbridge highlights the recent Weyerhauser-Chevron venture company called Catchlight Energy. Catchlight is “combining Weyerhaeuser’s expertise in innovative land stewardship, resource management and capacity to deliver sustainable cellulose-based feedstocks at scale with Chevron’s technology capabilities in molecular conversion, product engineering, advanced fuel manufacturing and fuels distribution.”

    Clark Binkley, the ex-Dean of the Faculty of Forests at UBC who proselytized privatization of Crown forests before returning to the USA and setting up his own investment company, is touting GreenWood Resources, a Portland-based company that develops intensively-managed hybrid poplar plantations for biofuels.

    Industry forest geneticist Dr Jean Brouard labels the land management strategy that partitions the land base into thirds, “Triad.” “Investors are most interested in concentrating on the most productive growing sites, typically about a third of any land base, that are close to mills with high existing roading density and low emissions on haulage. On these productive growing sites—with more intensive site preparation and genetics—you can meet the 20 percent increase in yield. On the average growing sites, you might have a business-as-usual or with more focus on ecosystems-based management, and then the least productive third is left for conservation. Triad is currently being used on a pilot basis in Quebec by the government as forestry was almost at a standstill.”

    Does this kind of land management strategy take into account climate change, forest health, biodiversity and other public interests? Brouard doesn’t seem to think that’s possible: “Essentially these go on in the less-intensively managed areas. But you can only grow trees like poplars profitably in moist bottom valley lands and that might coincide with species at risk or fish habitat values. There are also big concerns with pathogens [diseases like Septoria musiva] in hybrid poplar plantations that could jump to native cottonwoods and create a problem for our native forests. Conservation needs to be in all ecosystems and at all scales and that might not coincide with industry’s needs for the most productive lands.”

    Woodbridge admits, “Plantations are a dirty word for some Canadians.” But he argues there is no alternative; BC has to follow the more competitive suppliers of fibre and biofuel feedstock—the intensive plantations in the United States, Europe, New Zealand and Australia. “To remain competitive, BC has to lower wood costs and this is not done through selling indigenous timber cheaper. Because our labour and transport costs are going up, we have to farm fibre and feedstock for biofuels more intensively. We need to find a secure tenure system to do this.” 


    The delusion of biofuels

    To fully understand where the pressure for tenure reform is coming from, you have to follow the money. Bell and Rustad are clearly putting their money on biofuels, which are being promoted as one of the next great alternative energy sources, a cure for what ails the planet’s warming atmosphere. 

    You might wonder how burning forests—a fuel high in carbon—can possibly be good for the atmosphere. And that’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask. In fact, promoting the use of biofuels as part of the solution to global warming seems a bit delusional.

    The biofuel idea goes back to a strange loophole in the Kyoto Protocol rules that enables a tree to be cut down, turned into wood pellets, shipped overseas and then burned as fuel without having to account for any of the carbon that is released through all these activities. 

    If that loophole is plugged, BC would be forced to account for emissions from logging and burning, which, according to the 2007 BC Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report, creates the single largest source of emissions in the province, larger even than the energy sector. If the loophole disappears, the dream of rescuing BC’s forest industry by developing the biofuels sector would go up in a puff of wood smoke. 

    But right now, that loophole remains and is proving to be a powerful impetus for revamping the forest industry.

    Ontario is already taking the lead on exploiting this loophole with its proposals to revitalize ailing pulp mills and send wood pellets to its coal-fired power plants, which have been legislated to stop using coal by 2014. It’s one way to keep traditional forestry jobs in economically-depressed forestry-dependent towns. But it’s risky, and it’s exacerbating climate change. 

    Growing biofuels in an intensive way would degrade the health of the air, water and soil quality. Biodiversity would be severely compromised. Recreation and public access would be denied. The use of forests as needed carbon sinks and repositories of cultural values would go out the window. These rich, valley-bottom lands are what everyone wants—from wildlife to the international real estate companies, as witnessed in the sell-off in the last decade of Crown parcels along eastern Vancouver Island. 

    Conversion of these lands to intensive plantations would increase our emissions and decrease our ability to adapt to climate change. And, ironically, it would be done under the guise of mitigating climate change.

    If the province does go forward with tenure reform to support the biofuel industry and the Kyoto loophole is closed, what then? That would depend on exactly what the new form of tenure was. Bell has likened it to being something like the Agricultural Land Reserve. But the ALR has proven itself susceptible to the predations of the real estate industry and one can easily imagine the Kyoto loophole closing and real estate developments moving into the failed plantations.


    Public interest and consultation 

    With potentially a third of the province being considered for a form of tenure that might well be seen as de facto privatization, “uncontrollable controversy” seems inevitable—but only if the public becomes fully informed. So far, though, the government has managed to keep a pretty tight lid on its plans.

    Minister Bell says his focus is the decline of revenue in forest communities like Prince George, and the need for the ministry to take a “new direction.” “We are changing the way we are doing business. It is in the public’s interest to have a strong forest industry, and I’ve been very clear in the direction we need to go: better utilization of the resource, including bioenergy; intensive silviculture; growing the Chinese market; and promoting wood first.” In response to suggestions by his critics that the public expects government to manage not just fiscal resources but the physical values of a forest as well, Bell simply says: “With workforce adjustments, it is always difficult.”

    Bell’s counterpart sitting on the other side of the legislature disagrees with him on how to regain economic health in forest communities and what kind of Forest Service is needed to get there. Norm Macdonald, NDP MLA for Columbia River/Revelstoke and Opposition Forest Critic says, “This is the most valuable asset that the people of BC have—just the timber value of the forest alone is a third of a trillion dollars—and, if we don’t maintain that investment with regard to reforestation and research, matters will become progressively worse. [Our Forest Service] has been gutted to the point that the work that is needed to be done isn’t getting done.” 

    Macdonald sees the change in direction as the thin end of the wedge toward privatization of public forests. “This is cronyism at its worst. The memorandum sent out to all the forest managers to only focus on industry interests has had no public discussion. Has the public interest been considered? Is access going to be denied? To have that agenda without public discussion is deeply disturbing. After nine years on this file, you would think there would be a public plan. At best it is incompetence; at worst there is something more nefarious, like a privatization agenda for our public lands.”

    It seems obvious that the public does need to be consulted about the shift in direction and about what could be lost by converting natural forests to intensive plantations and potentially to real estate.

    Forest geneticist Brouard says the real lesson from Quebec is that for the Triad process to succeed, it must take place with public consultation. Short-circuiting public consultation leads to more wars in the woods or to industry negotiating their own agreements with ENGOS and First Nations “leaving government [and therefore the public] to play catchup.” The public, like industry, won’t invest in something it has no say over. Brouard also notes another “must have” before the Triad system can work: “The first thing you need, of course, is good inventory of all your lands.” Precisely what we don’t have because of all the cutbacks.

    Even investors are nervous about the lack of consultation and oversight. Peter Woodbridge notes, “I am recommending that government also beef up the Forest Service oversight. Let companies have their own sand box and manage their fibre as they see fit, but they have to stay within the confines and rules set by government. I am an advocate for good planning and strong government oversight, and in this regard I have some criticisms of government.” 

    Bell’s ministry seems to be ignoring the potential for conservation-type carbon offsets. Some First Nations are developing these through reduced harvesting, hoping to sell the offsets on international carbon markets—exactly the opposite of industry’s drift to intensification. These types of carbon offsets do have climatic and biodiversity benefits, unlike the biofuel offsets proposed by Bell in his vision. In order to sell these credits and meet international standards, there have to be tenures that guarantee the conservation of carbon in these forest sinks for 100 years. That means tenure reform, and First Nations are pioneering some of the ideas for how this could be done. 

    Unfortunately, no one in the ministry is talking about it. Derek Thompson, who is now negotiating carbon conservation projects in the tropics for World Wildlife Fund and indigenous groups, says that what amazes him about the government is the sheer lack of public discussion about the potentially huge revenue source of conservation carbon projects for rural communities.


    Last words

    With no legislated commitment to planning, no budget to do so, and a new mandate to respond to only industry demands, the government has left the public out of the discussion. Only “the google eyed, bandy-legged dudes” once on the inside, seem to know what’s happening. What they are saying is that we can anticipate losing control over our choicest Crown lands—sacrificing them to single, intensive industrial uses with an accompanying loss of access, watershed and biodiversity protection. 

    Regardless of the type of future business interests—from biofuels to ecosystem services—all roads lead back to the basic message of the green rangers. Says Alan Vyse, “Sure these market forces might build into them some public interest, but where is the discussion about what those public interests are? It is way past time for some fairly significant discussions on the future of our public forests.” Will it create an “uncontrollable controversy”? It is hard to imagine anything more controversial than not consulting with the people. 

    A good place for the government to start that consultation would be with the green rangers and their 1500 years of experience. To manage healthy forests, Britneff’s first step would be to get forest rangers back into the bush and decentralize services away from city offices to forest-dependent communities. 

    His second step would be to restore adequate funding for forest management and for research, including exploring international market opportunities that build on environmental stewardship, resiliency and sustainability. 

    Finally, his third step would be to grant the province’s chief forester independent statutory powers for auditing forest management in 100 local Forest Service offices by the holders of community forest tenures and First Nations tenures, thereby restoring a stewardship ethic to local forest models.

    Without such measures, a Big Burn of BC’s public forests seems imminent.

    Briony Penn, PhD is a naturalist, journalist, artist and award-winning environmental educator. She is the author of The Kids Book of Geography (Kids Can Press) and A Year on the Wild Side.

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