Overcoming misconceptions of the uninformed among biggest challenges forest management faces

Response to the Feb. 1, 2019 article “The forests we have left are critical to the environment.”

First, I’d like to say that I would agree that well managed forests are critical to the environment. That said, I also believe that there is room for a well-managed forest industry to exist within a healthy, diverse environment.

The first paragraph of the article seems to suggest that 50 years ago, logging was done primarily through a selective harvest system. As a 40-year veteran of the forest industry who has worked all over the coast and travelled extensively in this great province, I can say that selective logging has never been a major portion of the province’s cut. In the last 50 years, clearcut logging has dominated the landscape. For short periods, selective logging played a bigger role in some areas like Campbell River when there was a decent-sized commercial thinning program but even then it didn’t represent a large portion of the timber harvested in the district. Very little commercial thinning or selective logging happens today for four main reasons (in my opinion) including safety, regeneration issues, economics and few suitable stands remaining.

There is research out there that suggests clearcutting is the most productive (from a volume standpoint) silviculture system for most tree species. On the coast cedar, douglas fir and spruce do not respond well in shady conditions. Hemlock pretty much grows anywhere but, unfortunately, is our least valuable species. Small cutblocks and selective-harvested areas tend to migrate into hemlock monocultures over time.

I am not sure where Mr. Crombie gets his current firefighting information from but it is not anywhere near accurate. Fires are still aggressively attacked and by far, most fires are brought under control by the morning after discovery. All active logging sites are required to have appropriate fire equipment onsite during fire season. In the event of a fire start, they are required to report and take suppression activities (where safe to do so). In addition, the Ministry of Forest, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (MOF for the sake of this letter) has highly-skilled professional firefighting crews, helicopters and air tankers on standby across the province during fire season. These resources are highly mobile and can be deployed quickly. Victoria does have some resources but they have skilled support functions like remote sensing, mapping and administration. By far the largest number of Wildfire Branch staff are deployed across the province in the three fire centers in Kamloops, Prince George and Parksville and the many fire bases spread out far and wide. MOF has not conscripted firefighters in many years because of the training and safety issues. Every person fighting a fire on the fire line gets a basic firefighting course as a minimum.

It is true that when the government prepares a provincial budget, they put down a number for fire suppression costs based on the 10-year average cost. As we saw in 2017 and 2018, the numbers were exceeded by a huge amount. Each fire is not assigned a budget for suppression and budget rarely, if ever, affects suppression activities. They do what they have to, to get the fires out. When things heat up and there a large numbers of fires, they are prioritized based on resources and risks. Some remote fires that do not pose a threat to values like life, communities, electrical transmission lines and the like, may not get any resources allocated. In extreme cases such as 2017 and 2018, there simply isn’t enough resources to adequately resource all the high-priority fires immediately. This is when MOF calls in outside resources from other provinces, countries and the military.

Fire costs are tracked and reported by the fire but the suppression activities are not controlled by the provincial budget. All is not perfect at Wildfire Management Branch but I say they are doing a lot on the fire suppression front. I can’t imagine what more they could be doing.

Yes, there was a time when the government issued renewable Tree Farm Licences (TFLs) and Forest Licences(FLs) to forest companies. It is also true that the forest companies did not have to bid on timber within their tenures. The timber was appraised based on coastal or interior log markets. It was argued by the USA producers that there was not an open competitive market to determine the log values used as the basis of the appraisal system. This was identified as weakness in B.C.’s fight against softwood tariffs with the US. As a result B.C. took back 20 per cent of the large TFLs and FLs and created BC Timber Sales (BCTS) in 2003. BCTS auctions just under 20 per cent of the provinces harvested volume each year. This is the amount that has been determined to be a statistically-sufficient volume to determine the market value of timber harvested from TFLs and FLs. In theory, for the last 10 years plus the stumpage paid by the major licensees is based on an open and competitive log market. The current market pricing system is very complex and way too difficult to describe here, but in a nutshell, the stumpage of all timber from major licences in B.C. is now based on open market values.

There are fewer workers in the forest industry than 50 years ago, it is not, however, because of some great shift to clearcutting. There are many reasons for low worker numbers including: mechanization, fewer mills, reduced cuts some due to higher environmental standards like stream reserves and a reduced harvest land base due to parks and protected areas.

Waste is an issue to be sure but it is a complex issue. In 2015/16, pulp companies on the coast weren’t buying much coastal pulp due to a cheaper supply from the Interior. That changed in 2017/18 as the wood chips started to dry up as harvest levels in the mountain pine beetle zone started to drop. If you can’t sell your pulp log, you have little choice but to leave them behind. This has happened a number of times over the last 50 years. Another issue is, as logging moves into higher elevations, they get into more decadent stands with more wood that just has no economic value. Wood with more than 40-50 per cent decay is not suitable for pulping.

Piling and burning of wood waste is the most common and effective method reducing post-harvest fire hazards to an acceptable level. Nobody wants more or more severe fires, so it is a no brainer to reduce the fire hazard. It is true that burning wood waste releases carbon and smoke and isn’t ideal. More chipping would be nice but it is not very cost effective and the reason I believe more of it doesn’t happen on the coast.

Forests and forest products do sequester carbon. I would argue however the old decadent stands may actually be releasing more carbon than they sequester due to rot and decay. The thrifty young stands actually sequester the most carbon because there is little rot or decay and they are adding volume. So the best way to sequester carbon is to harvest timber, make timber products and reforest stands. The timber products store the carbon until they are disposed of in hopefully many years and the reforested stands start storing more.

It is tragic to see these huge forest fires and their impact on the environment. Certainly they do release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Climate change, hotter summers and large wildfires are a real issue with no easy singular answer. More needs to be done on the prevention side but it is all very expensive and can’t be done all at once. Time will tell how the province did.

Pine beetles have been monitored for many years and their populations have risen and fallen over those years. There were even crews that went out in the winter and cut down and burned infected trees to help reduce their spread. In the end though, it was the early cold winters that controlled their numbers. It has to be an early cold winter because the beetles developed an antifreeze as winter moves in which allowed them to survive better when the real cold arrived. Unfortunately, through climate change, winters have gotten warmer and a later onset which allowed the beetle numbers to explode and the rest is history. This is not the government’s fault unless you blame them for climate change. As for reforestation many of the pine beetle-affected stands were harvested and are replanted soon after. It is not fair to suggest that it has taken 40 years to start replanting mountain pine beetle areas.

There has always been a salvage program in the province. No, joe public can’t always get access to timber on the TFLs or FLs, as companies who hold those tenures have the first right to the timber on their tenures. On Crown lands, anyone can get a salvage permit but it is not a simple process. You need forest professionals involved and then there are road maintenance and rehab issues. Of course, economics play a big issue as it is rarely worth it to go through the process for a small volume due to equipment mobilization costs. There is, however, an active salvage community in the woods but maybe not as visible or vibrant as some would like.

Eliminating TFLs and major FLs would be very difficult and expensive with the compensation required. There was a significant amount of compensation paid when the 20 per cent was taken back. Also, to my knowledge, no one has suggested a new system that would be better overall and provide long term stable jobs. I would suggest a revamp of the waste system which allows the licence holder to calculate the waste with a few spot checks by government. I also believe we need to review the log export policy with an eye to promoting the construction of new mills, mostly on the coast as the Interior has more than they need with the reducing cuts. The industry needs certainty on the land base which requires treaties with First Nations. The MOF should review the market pricing system to ensure the province collects a fair stumpage from the majors based on prices received by BCTS. That differential has increased steadily over the years since BCTS’ inception.

In my opinion, the forests are managed well for the environment with forest professionals involved all along the way. There is still work to do with significant challenges, one of the biggest is overcoming the misconceptions of the uninformed. The province needs to educate people on how it all works and where the challenges lie.

Norman D Nalleweg, RFT

Campbell River

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