Does Forestry in British Columbia Make Money?

While driving around British Columbia, one cannot help but notice the forestry industry – bare clear-cuts on the hills, logging trucks on the road. This simple observation leads me to this question: is the forest industry that now exists in BC profitable when one does a full-scale life-cycle analysis of its environmental impacts?

The answer to this question is obvious to most people – forestry is a good renewable-resource industry that provides many jobs and promotes economic growth. There is much literature from the government and the forest industry about how BC utilizes sustainable forestry. Most people accept this positive view of the forest industry. But I am concerned that we might find a different answer if we look behind the smoke screen of advertising and the government’s rosy view that all resource extraction industries are valuable for BC. Why might this be? I cannot analyse the economics of the forestry industry because I am not an economist, so in some sense all I would like to do here is ask some questions that others who are more qualified might help to answer.

The first question is what to include in such an analysis. If forestry is considered only trees, rather than the whole ecosystem with all its biodiversity, you would get one answer. If you worry about biodiversity you might get another answer (e.g. Drever 2000). If you worry about climate change and carbon dioxide dynamics, you can view forests as carbon stores that might be valuable if there is a price on carbon in the future. If you value the forests of BC as ecosystems that ought to be left as a legacy to our grandchildren, you might again take a different perspective. Do you include in your balance sheet the costs of fire-fighting and the government departments that manage the industry? What external costs are left out of a broad overview of forestry in BC?

At present it would appear to me that forest harvesting is not sustainable in BC, even if you take the narrow view that only trees matter in the calculations. If it were a sustainable industry, there would be no need to harvest old growth forests. But you could be certain that if any government actually said ‘no more cutting of old growth’, there would be an outcry. But if we continue as we are, we will cut our way to the North Pole, as long as we can find trees. The Yukon is next, if not now then for our grandchildren. But trees grow back again, so all will be well. Restoration ecology to the rescue. If you take a biodiversity perspective, you might find that what grows back is a pale imitation of what was there before. And if the ecosystem does restore, the time frame may be very long, looping back to the question of what sustainability means. If the forest ecosystem restores itself in 300 years, is that sustainable? How about 500 years?

If we treat forestry like any other agricultural enterprise, we might allocate some fraction of land to this activity and use the rest for recreation, tourism, and truly sustainable activities like berry picking. Suppose we planned that by 2020 forest companies could not cut anymore on crown land, and by that date land would be allocated to companies to purchase like any farmer would buy a farm. I can hear the howls of protest to such a suggestion. Is it correct that forestry then is really a mining industry operating on non-renewable resources – crown land that has old growth that belongs in theory to the people of BC in perpetuity? There are reports of how some forest companies are short-changing the government in their cutting practices because of the failure of inspection of the amount of wood taken off an area (e.g. see Parfitt, 2007) Short-changing the government is short-changing the people of the province and the people of the future who would live here.

But it seems to me that a much larger issue is that much of the planning for forestry in BC ignores the biodiversity issue. To be sure an iconic bird or plant might have some small areas saved for it, if it is included on the threatened species list. But as any ecologist might suggest, these protected areas are postage stamps that are in the long-term insufficient for the conservation of the species of concern. The major conservation issues of our day are those where economic growth produced by harvesting trees, natural gas, oil or coal collides directly with protecting our ecosystems for future generations. By any measure, the economic agenda wins the day, and the biodiversity agenda is peppered with good advertising telling us that all will be well.

It is fortunate that the First Nations of BC are rapidly awakening to these issues, and progress has been made in giving them more authority over their traditional lands. This is a bright side of the global issue of conservation in Canada.

The political issue that flows from this discussion is to ask how much subsidy our BC government provides to aid the exploitation of our natural resources, resources that ought to be managed for the future of the people of BC. Are we subsidizing environmental destruction with our tax dollars and all the while being told that even more economic growth is necessary? There must be another way, and for an ecologist concerned with biodiversity and the protection of the natural resources of our province, the current policies look like a Ponzi scheme.

Drever, R. 2000. A Cut Above: Ecological principles for sustainable forestry on BC’s coast. David Suzuki Foundation, Vancouver, B.C. ISBN 1-55054-689-9, Available at http://www.davidsuzuki.org/publications/reports/2000/a-cut-above-ecological-principles-for-sustainable-forestry-on-bcs-coast/

Parfitt, B. 2007. Over-cutting and Waste in B.C.’s Interior: A Call to Rethink B.C.’s Pine Beetle Logging Strategy. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Vancouver, BC. ISBN: 978-0-88627-533-4, available at www.policyalternatives.ca/BC f

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